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In addition to the satisfaction of a job well done, success also provides more tangible rewards, and few rewards are more gratifyingly tangible than climbing behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz E420 sedan. Or, for that matter, any member of the Mercedes E-Class lineup. While the pot of gold at the end of the fabled rainbow is questionable, there may very well be one of these.
The Mercedes E-Class is comprised of three models. The least expensive of this trio (from $40,495, including destination charges) is the E300D, powered by a thrifty 3.0-liter six-cylinder diesel. The E320 (from $45,395) is the most popular member of the line, with a 217-hp 3.2-liter dohc 24-valve inline six-cylinder engine.
The E420 tops the E-Class range, powered by a robust 4.2-liter dohc 32-valve V8 with 275 hp. With this kind of thrust, the senior E-Class entry rates as one of the planet's premier cabin-class hot rods.
All three Benzes send their horsepower to the ground through an ultra-smooth five-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels.
The overall best use of the E420 is not for commuting to work, impressing our mothers, or making sibs jealous. It's for driving as though you were being chased by dogs. Across Montana.
If you think high-speed fun is somehow inappropriate for a Mercedes, you've been away. Speed limits are higher now and this car just pleads for a chance to show what it can do.
After its initial tip-in, the E420 has the throttle response of an aircraft carrier catapult. Pushing the pedal to the softly carpeted floor returns a thrilling explosion of acceleration, pushing you back into the seat as the car builds velocity. The cabin fills with the engine's refined snarl and the tachometer's needle climbs toward the redline.
The car comes alive at speed. It has responsive, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering to guide its hefty (3748-pound) bulk around fast corners, an activity that's enhanced by a well-bred independent suspension system, double-wishbones in the front and a five-link arrangement in the rear. The blending of comfortable ride quality with retention of impressive handling characteristics is notable.
BMW's 540i may have a slight edge in absolute handling, but the distinction would be hard to detect on public roads. Though the suspension tuning favors ride quality, we found the car well-balanced in hard cornering and a joy on typical highway curves. There's no wallowing, no indecision at turn-in, and feedback from the steering and through the driver's seat is at once informative and reassuring.
Braking performance, always a Mercedes strong suit, matches the E420's speed potential and then some.
Construction quality is another area where Mercedes has always scored high marks, and in the E420 it's almost off the charts.
If ever it could be believed that a car was machined from a single billet of high-strength steel, this is that car. The doors close so soundly that you'd swear they pressurized the car. Neither road nor wind noise can achieve much of an auditory foothold to mar the driving pleasure.
The E420 is a yardstick of quality in its class of high-end touring sedans. Frankly, the car is as good as it is because of rampant competition in this segment, with serious challenges available from the Cadillac STS, Lexus LS 400, Infiniti Q45, and, of course, the BMW 540i. Nevertheless, the car still acquits itself very well among its peers. It's clear that the three-pointed start still stands for something special.