Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Why Am I Here?

Mercedes' E-class sports a V8 for special effects

By Marc Stengel

APRIL 26, 1999:  After the door latches shut with its firm, gentle click, all is quiet. It is as if the whole world has exhaled, scattering shards of woe and distraction like so many leaves into the gutter. The hush is intense. Pastel, neutral gray leather, jotted with mute flourishes of burl, balms the eyes. Upon first sliding into the driver's seat of the newest Mercedes-Benz E430 Sport sedan, it is impossible not to wonder, "Why am I here?"

It is only fair that such an existential curiosity should occur to anyone sitting inside a car costing $60,150. There are many others, of course, costing much, much more--particularly from Mercedes-Benz's own lineup. The point of questioning, however, is not to evaluate affordability, which is relative anyway. The point is to fathom just what to expect from an unquestionable masterpiece of a car that surpasses basic transportation by this much. Indeed, what am I doing here? And what must this E430 Sport do for me?

The marketing literature is profligate with answers. Standard safety features top the list for '99. Like all of M-B's E-class models, the E430 features the industry's first full-length side air curtains. These streaming billows appear from the arch over the side windows in the event of side impact. In conjunction with the front and rear door-mounted airbags, they help shield occupants from head, neck, and torso injuries and even deflect Plexiglas shrapnel from occupants' eyes. Standard too for '99 is the circuitry for M-B's BabySmart system in the front passenger seat. When Mercedes' specially designed child seat plugs into this system, it disables the right-side front airbag without affecting the driver's.

Even the car's quiet hush evokes a palpable sense of security. The same ultra-rigid structure that sharpens handling and influences ride quality also envelops occupants within an elaborate steel cocoon armored with front and rear "crumple zones"--in other words, the fenders are expendable in extremis. To thwart one's progress toward the abyss in the first place, space-age circuits provide computerized traction control and anti-lock braking. The former, dubbed Electronic Stability Program (ESP), has a clairvoyant knack for sensing impending skids out of control and then countering them with judicious, automatic use of braking and throttle. As for the latter, an Emergency BrakeAssist System "reads" the urgency of a driver's braking reaction. If it suspects a panic stop, BrakeAssist applies full braking force instantaneously, thus bypassing the driver's own slow-wittedness and achieving stopping distances reportedly up to 45 percent shorter than normal.

Who will argue that, for $60,000, a safer tub is a most worthy and responsible "investment"? On the other hand, who can resist the flirtatious body sculpts and aggressive wheel-and-tire package that transform a family's E430 into an aficionado's Sport? Mercedes' "captive" sport-tuning firm, AMG, accomplishes the plastic surgery with subtle but suggestive air dams, lower side panels, and rear valences. Racy, star-spoked alloy wheels wear aggressive P235/45ZR-17 tires. For $3,950, the optional Sport package does indeed sharpen handling (due to the more responsive, low-profile tires); and it does exploit the image potential of this handsome sedan with its brilliant 275-horsepower V8 and 6.4-second zero-to-60. It is by far, moreover, the cheaper alternative to AMG's similar-looking but rowdier-behaving E55, whose 349-HP fire-breathing 5.5-liter V8 blisters zero-to-60 in about 5.5 seconds--altogether another story, to be sure.

Sporting credentials and racy cosmetics, however, can't entirely define this car's complicated appeal or its curious reason for being. The experience of driving it, surprisingly, tends to lull one into an unfamiliar repose. The car is moving through traffic; it is winding its way underneath leafy canopies along scenic back roads; it is drawing the knowing stares of envious onlookers. But the prevailing sensation behind the wheel is almost perversely static.

The car is living-room quiet. Its eight-speaker Bose sound system is concert-hall lush. Dual-thermostat automatic climate control is effortless to set and hard to detect as it heats, cools, and ventilates according to occupant preferences and changing meteorology. The E430 becomes a world unto itself, with its own rhythms, climate, and stimuli. And yet reality dictates that it must also orbit within a larger world outside. Therein, you see, is the nature of this quandary: Where does the driver of an E430 Sport--or more appropriately an owner--fit into the equation?

As for me, I can only admit that I am here to take the measure of this car's many excellences using a number of obvious material criteria. As an expression of what the auto industry defines as midsize luxury, the E430 Sport has arguably few peers and no distinct betters. A Jaguar's ride may cosset slightly more; a 5-Series BMW may handle with a little more surgical precision. Audi's A6 may pamper a bit more; and Japan's Infiniti/Lexus/Acura trio manages to cost significantly less. But the overall presentation of the E430 Sport withstands all of these partial comparisons and more.

At the same time, however, there is something less here than meets the eye. I have experienced and enjoyed the Mercedes E430 Sport. I can even say, of course, that I have driven it extensively. But it has not driven me. It has not seduced me. It has not convinced me to bankrupt even my fantasy account of wish-list dollars that I husband as dearly as real ones. The car has been good to me; taken care of me; protected me; even, for a week, enhanced my feeble social status. The E430 Sport is an extraordinary car, very far from the ordinary, indeed. But it is not exceptional, and for this driver, at least, I had hoped to be transported magically away from here, if only for one afternoon's galloping respite.



Rough ridin'

Middle Tennessee has slowly been shaping up as an off-road Elysian Fields of sorts for stumbling automakers. How else to explain the similar survival-mode decisions by both Nissan and Saturn to build new sport/utility vehicles in the area? With the formal media introduction of the Xterra mini-SUV scheduled for the end of the month (stay tuned for more details), Nissan has a decided jump on Saturn.

But that hasn't stopped Saturn officials from teasing the wire services with mush-mouth speculations like this one, made last week to AP: "We are seriously going to proceed from this point to develop a business plan that would support bringing an SUV line to Spring Hill." Even if Saturn gets the corporate nod to go truckin', it's hard to imagine a Saturn SUV appearing before model-year 2002.

As for Nissan, the Xterra (due at showrooms in June) couldn't be more important. Last week, AP World News reported that Nissan's corporate parent would post "a net loss for the last fiscal year that exceeds 30 billion yen ($252 million), three times the company's latest estimate." That makes it all the more urgent that the Smyrna-built Xterra succeed in the rough-and-tumble SUV market. Ironically, Nissan's corporate capsize coincides with official expectations that the company's North American operations are likely to post "a profit in fiscal 1998 for the first time in two years."


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