Strength and power Mercedes trademarks

January 16, 1992|By Richard Truett | Richard Truett,Orlando Sentinel

Is it worth it? That question kept turning over in my mind the entire week I drove the metallic blue Mercedes-Benz 300 SE test car.

I found the answer in a somewhat unusual place: under the hood in the form of the left motor mount, the steel and rubber device that connects the engine to the car's frame.

This one piece of beautifully designed hardware caught my eye because it looked strong enough to hold in place the engine of a locomotive.

It is probably 10 times tougher than it needs to be, and it probably will never wear out.

The same can be said of the rest of the car, where plastic is used sparingly and where the quality of materials for the seats, --board and other fixtures appears to be the best money can buy.

I have never driven anything that felt as sturdy and solid as the 300 SE, one of the five S-Class models the German automaker has introduced for the 1992 model year.

These new S-Class cars -- the 300 SD, 300 SE, 400 SE, 500 SEL and 600 SEL -- range in price from $69,400 to more than $120,000. Mercedes says the new S-Class cars are a showcase for the company's technology, and it expects them to be its best-selling line.

If you are the kind of driver who would like to buy one car, keep it 20 years and rack up hundreds of thousands of miles, you are unlikely to find a luxury sedan as capable as the Mercedes-Benz. Some say Mercedes cars just get broken in at about 100,000 miles.

It takes a lot of power to move the 4,520-pound 300 SE. Mercedes engineers have made plenty available from the 229-horsepower, in-line, six-cylinder engine cradled behind the 300's sloping nose.

The 3.2-liter six-cylinder is the only engine available in the 300 SE. You can get a V-8 in a nearly identical Mercedes, but it is in the more expensive 400 SE.

The 300 SE is one of the world's first production cars to have a five-speed automatic transmission. More are on the way as other manufacturers work to perfect five-speed automatics for less expensive cars. When connected to the engine's computer, the five-speed automatic's precisely timed shifts improve fuel economy.

But in the 300 SE, Mercedes' innovative gearbox doesn't save the car from being assessed a government-imposed $2,100 gas guzzler tax, which is added to the base price of $69,400 and a luxury tax of $3,900. The 300 SE requires premium unleaded and is EPA-rated at 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 on the highway.

In any case, the transmission shifts smoothly when driven with a light foot. However, when quick acceleration is called for, the shifts are delayed considerably as the engine winds up close to its 6,700 rpm limit.

When driven in this manner the big Mercedes loses some of its restrained composure. Shifts are abrupt and the engine groans noisily.

The test car, with fewer than 3,500 miles, had one minor fault: At slow speeds it stalled several times. It may have needed a minor adjustment. The test car always restarted instantly and ran fine in other situations.

This car feels incredibly heavy, almost unwieldy at times. It never gives you the confident feeling that you can try a sporting maneuver. Yet when I tried some fast cornering I discovered that the car can be driven aggressively.

In gentle sweeping curves and over minor bumps the 300 SE has a soft, giving ride, and its body seems to smoothly roll and gracefully dip with the contour of the pavement.

The suspension is a complex four-wheel independent affair, meaning that each wheel is capable of reacting individually to road conditions and allowing the driver better control.

The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes seemed powerful enough to stop a runaway jetliner. However, engaging the anti-lock system on dry pavement takes a strong thrust of the brake pedal.

The power-assisted steering requires a bit of muscle and is stiff compared with that of other cars.

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