Age usually isn't very becoming in the auto industry.The exceptions, of course, are antique cars, vintage models and classics-vehicles you pay homage to, a piece of Americana from a bygone age, machines that will never come this way again. Then there are old cars-vehicles that have been around maybe a year or two longer than they should, but which remain in the lineup because the automaker is trying to amortize the cost of tooling for another 12, 24 or 36 months. The Ford Escort, Buick Century and Oldsmobile Ciera come to mind as examples of those on borrowed time. Consider for a moment that the boy or girl born the same time that Century and Ciera arrived on the market will be old enough this fall to obtain a driver's license and motor away in a Century or Ciera on the 16th birthday of those models. A few-very few-models age gracefully. We had the opportunity to test drive just such a machine, the Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan, which was dressed up in Special Edition garb in its 10th and final year before a new model arrives this fall sporting redesigned sheet metal with round headlamps and increased front- and rear-seat headroom, front- and rear-seat shoulder room and rear-seat legroom. In the 10 years the current generation E-Class has been on the market, Mercedes has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide, making it the most popular Mercedes in terms of sales. The 1996 E320 arrives with 3.2-liter, 6-cylinder, gasoline engine or 3-liter, 6-cylinder, diesel engine in October and a 4.2-liter, V-8 gas engine after the first of the year, the same engines the 1995 version offers. But that is then and this is now, and it's time to bid adieu to a vehicle that seemingly has gotten better at an age when gravity sets in-even for autos. At Mercedes the E-Class is a step up from, but strongly similar to, the smaller C-Class sedan. The E320 performs like a larger version of its C220/280 kin. Comfort and class even if a bit understated, meaning Mercedes focuses more on how the car functions than how it looks in front of the mirror. The 3.2-liter engine is lively, considering the weight it has to pull (3,000 pounds), and the suspension is surefooted, considering it has to hold that weight in place around the bends in the road while cushioning occupants from unnecessary harshness transmitted back through seat or wheel. And though Volvo tries to suggest it holds a monopoly on safety, the E320 comes with dual air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes as standard, and available ASR (acceleration slip control), to minimize wheel slippage when sensors detect a loss of traction, a trio of systems designed to minimize problems and maximize driving enjoyment. The E320 Special Edition commemorates the final year of this generation before the next arrives by offering $4,000 worth of options-from telephone and compact disc player to burl walnut trim-for $1,295, a $2,705savings. The discounted option package also helps attract buyers who would rather save $2,705 and purchase the remaining stocks of this car to clear the decks of old models before the new one arrives. Base price of the E320 is $43,500. In addition to the Special Edition package, the test car was equipped with ASR, headlamp washers/wipers and heated front seats in a $2,800 package plus a novel Special Edition sapphire black exterior finish that looks to be a deep, dark gray with bluish tint. Interesting color. Standard equipment includes all the power goodies, from brakes/locks/mirrors/seats/windows/sunroof, plus air conditioning, cruise control and leather upholstery. >> 1995 Mercedes-Benz E320 SE Wheelbase: 110.2 inches Length: 187.2 inches Engine: 3.2-liter, 217-h.p., 24-valve, 6 Transmission:4 speed automatic EPA mileage: 20 m.p.g. ci ty/26 m.p.g. highway Base price: $43,500 Price as tested: $47,630. Add $2,835 for value added package including ASR (acceleration slip control), headlamp washers/wipers, electric heated front seat; and$1,295 for Special Edition package including integrated telephone, six-disc compact disc player, high-performance sound system, alloy wheels, electric adjustable steering column, driver's power/memory seat, burl walnut interior trim, metallic paint, stainless steel door sills. Freight runs $595. Pluses: Sprightly for a 10-year-old. A C280 in larger form. SE package represents a $2,705 savings from what you would pay for those options separately. Minuses: Could use a tad more interior room, which is just what will happen when the new version comes out this fall. >>
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