The response is instantaneous. You apply pressure with your right foot and the sleek sedan moves off with authority. As the tachometer needle climbs, it's increasingly obvious that the car under you wants to get on with it. There's a restless urgency here that's rare in a luxury car.
That's the result of a 4.2-liter aluminum V8 with twin overhead camshafts and 32 valves, an engine that's made the latest addition to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class--the E420--one of the most delightful combinations of performance and luxury in its class. BMW's 540i used to have sole possession of the honor. Now it can be viewed as a tie ballgame.
There's more here than the new engine, of course. And, where it counts the most, less. When the E420 rolled into showrooms in April, its $49,900 pricetag was $2600 less than the previous model. Adjusted for additional new standard equipment, including door-mounted side airbags, that represents a 9.7 percent price reduction.
The E420 shares the distinctive styling of the other new E-Class sedans that were introduced last year--the $39,900 E300D, powered by a 3.0-liter dohc 24-valve 6-cyl. diesel, and the $43,500 E320, with a 3.2-liter dohc 24-valve inline six. The only styling element that sets the E420 apart from the other members of the line is its 5-spoke alloy wheels.
The new E-Class cars are slightly larger than the previous model line, which means more head, leg and shoulder room. Shaped in wind tunnels, the body has a coefficient of drag (Cd) of just 0.29, which is at the forefront for any car sold in the U.S. A low Cd means better fuel economy, as well as reduced wind noise.
The E420 is packed with the usual Mercedes luxury features--think of one, it's there--but the heart of its story is the new engine, which is loaded with leading edge technology.
One of the most intriguing items under this heading is the variable camshaft timing, which adjusts the opening and closing of the intake valves to optimize power and torque throughout the operating range of the engine. That means high output with low emissions, a smooth idle, higher midrange torque and increased power at peak rpm.
As is common these days, the E420 replaces the traditional ignition distributor with direct ignition. There is one dual-firing coil for each pair of cylinders, with detonation (knock) sensors mounted directly over the sparkplugs. Ignition timing can be altered from one engine revolution to the next, for optimum combustion efficiency. Again, the benefit is more power, better emissions performance, better fuel economy.
Obviously, there's an exceptionally sophisticated electronics system involved here. The new Bosch Motronic engine management system controls the ignition and fuel injection systems, and is also linked to the control units for the automatic transmission, the traction control system, the antilock brakes and the new Electronic Stability Program (ESP). This electronic link lets the individual systems talk to each other and interact as necessary.
The Electronic Stability Program (ESP), an E420 option, is one of the great safety developments of recent years. Using a system of electronic sensors and sophisticated computer logic, ESP reviews the car's behavior every micro-second to determine if it's going in the direction it's being steered. If not, the system selectively brakes one or more wheels and/or reduces engine power to get the car back on track.
In most situations, the driver probably won't even realize that ESP is at work. But there will be no doubt of its helpful hand if a serious skid develops. The system's ability to restore stable driving is just this side of magic.
The new V8's robust 275 hp flows through a new 5-speed automatic transmission on its way to the rear wheels. It's computer-controlled, of course, and adapts to varying conditions as well as the driver's style. The shift program is constantly adjusted according to dynamic factors like load, road incline and throttle movement.
A lockup torque convertor operates in the top three gears to optimize fuel efficiency, and a winter shift program, which starts the car off in second gear, virtually eliminates wheelspin on slippery surfaces.
Also standard on the E420 are dual front airbags, plus side airbags mounted in the front doors. The steel structure surrounding occupants is more rigid than the previous E-Class cars, and there are larger front and rear crumple zones to absorb the energy of a collision. Automatic seatbelt tensioners hold occupants firmly in place during an impact.
The E420 story isn't all advanced technology and hardware. It's also about comfort, convenience and understated luxury.
The inside contours are more rounded, giving the interior a softer look. The front seats are similar to those in the flagship S-Class sedans. Leather upholstery is standard in the E320 and E420 (optional in the E300D), and dashboard and door panels are trimmed with burl walnut.
A high quality sound system is an absolute requirement in luxury cars today, and for that Mercedes went to Bose. The 200-watt 8-speaker AM/FM/cassette system was designed specifically for the E-Class interior, and its performance in the quiet cabin is just this side of symphony hall.
A CD player and cellular phone can be ordered as factory-installed options.
The dual zone automatic climate control system includes an electrostatic dust filter, an activated charcoal filter to shut out pollens and particulates, plus a smog sensor that automatically switches the system into recirculation mode if elevated levels of carbon monoxide or oxides of nitrogen are detected.
Another switch circulates residual engine heat when the ignition is turned off to keep the interior warm for up to 30 minutes.
Like many luxury cars today, a memory system stores seat, headrest, outside mirror and steering wheel positions for three different drivers. Unlike most systems, it also stores seat and headrest position for three different passengers.
The tilt-telescope steering column is power-operated, and the remote trunk release includes a valet lock-out. A power sunroof is available as an option.
Remote entry and security systems aren't unusual among luxury cars, but the standard system on all E-Class models uses infrared light rather than radio waves, to prevent high-tech thieves from stealing the entry code.
People who step up to German luxury cars expect superior handling response, and the E-Class sedans are worthy of their national origins.
A new double wishbone front suspension and refined 5-link rear suspension combine with the stiffer chassis to provide crisp responses and excellent high-speed stability. The overall feel isn't quite as aggressive as, say, a BMW 540i Sport, because the E-Class suspension tuning priority emphasized ride quality over absolute handling.
And ride quality is first-rate. Thanks to improvements in shock absorber damping, the E420 and its stablemates are more supple than the previous generation. That's not a big deal on Germany's beautifully maintained highway system, but it's definitely a plus here in the U.S.
However, the most memorable element of a drive in the E420 is its compelling power. The engine isn't quite in the same league as the old E500, a limited edition special with 315 hp on tap. But it's not far behind. Tramp on the gas and 60 mph comes up in about 6.5 seconds, and passing performance is of the right-now variety.
Thanks to its V8 engine, the E420 adds exhilarating performance to the other E-Class virtues--superb engineering, good looks, flawless fit and finish, state-of-the-art safety features and outstanding comfort.
It's hard to equate a $50,000 purchase price with value, but compared to its competition, the new E420 stacks up very well in this department, something that was hard to say about Mercedes-Benz automobiles in recent years. All E-Class models are loaded with luxury features, and all are backed by a 4-year, 50,000-mile warranty that includes tires, batteries, adjustments and 24-hour roadside assistance.
Beyond that, there's still a high prestige factor that goes with Mercedes ownership, despite the inroads made by Japanese competition.
The E-Class raised the ante for midsize luxury sedans when it appeared last year. And the V8 power of the E420 raises it even higher.