Versus the competiton:
If you’re a regular reader of this column, there’s a good chance you went to any number of classic car shows over the summer.
If you’re not into the old car hobby, you might just wonder what sort of car could end up at such a show a couple decades hence.
Your answer could be found at the show’s Mercedes Benz’s area, where you could take a look at a silver four-door E55 on display. I’d put money on it that the new Mercedes Benz E55 would fit the bill.
By now, you’re familiar with the Mercedes Benz E-Class. It’s a mid-level, mid-sized offering from Mercedes. The front end identity, with its rounded hood and round headlights, along with a svelte, graceful sedan body is still fresh. It incorporates a big nod to past Mercedes sedans while giving the overall look of the mid-sized cars a new direction.
Its overall performance is equally satisfying. Available with a 221-horsepower 3.2-liter six-cylinder or 275 horsepower eight-cylinder, the vehicle’s speed, agility and engineering are well-known. So how do you take such a good car and make it better?
Hand it over to AMG.
AMG is a German performance house that takes the family Mercedes and turns it into a mobile missile. AMG has been doing this for years and they know how to do it right.
Mercedes now owns a majority interest in AMG, so expect more of this in the future.
There’s little here to indicate externally that your Mercedes is special, unless you see the discreet AMG badge on the trunk lid. Then look at the tires. Wide, low profile 18-inch tires reside on those wheels. That’s it.
But it’s what’s under the hood that counts: A screaming 5.5-liter 349-horsepower V8. It produces a concrete-crinkling 390 pound-feet of torque. This is basically the SL500’s 5-liter V8, enlarged to 5.5 liters with a larger crankshaft and better breathing.
Power is fed through a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic transmission that also sees duty in Mercedes’ 6-liter V12 models. This unit is used for its ability to handle massive amounts of torque. It clicked off the shifts quickly, downshifting without hesitation.
Mercedes provides an Electronic Stability Program, which can be shut off if you’d like to try some tire-peeling burnouts. It would be out of character for the car. The torque curve is flat, and when you goose the gas, the power comes on sure and strong. And it just keeps coming, and coming, and coming, and coming and…
The power is strong enough to press you back into you seatback, like taking-off in an airplane.
Ride is a bit firmer than standard E-Class, but it’s not punishing. The trade-off is great cornering, important when dealing with 349 horses. Thank the car’s suspension, which rides softer over bumps at low speeds, firming up when the speed increases. Many luxury cars do this, but not with the invisible hand that Mercedes is able to accomplish.
What’s so amazing is, despite all the speed and power, there’s an amazing amount of refinement a nd calm that this car displays. For a sedan with four more horsepower than a Corvette, you’d expect more theatrics. But this car carries it off with unruffled demeanor.
That means the driver of this rocket must pay attention. This car does just what’s told and quickly. The steering is somewhat light, but still communicates. It also means skipping the use of the cupholders. They just don’t belong in such a serious sports sedan. (neither do car phones, but I won’t get into that).
Braking performance is as superior as the rest of the car. It stops on a dime, a trite phrase, perhaps, but one that definitely applies. Nosedive is non-existent and the brakes are large- particularly the front ones, at 13.2 inches.
With power and ability far beyond that of normal automobiles, the super car in sedan clothing has its share of safety features. As you’d expect, anti-lock brakes as well as front and door-mounted side air-bags are standard.
In addition, the ca r comes with Brake Assis t, which detects how quickly the brake pedal is being applied and adjusts braking power accordingly. It also has side head impact protection, which works in conjunction with the side impact air bags. Traction control is also standard on this powerful rear-wheel-drive automobile. This is in addition to the Electronic Stability Program, which detects understeer or oversteer and keeps the vehicle on its intended course.
Rocketing down the highway is easy when ensconced in the comfort of the E55 cabin.
AMG uses special trim, the test car having black leather trim with dark blue inserts. The seats were firm and supportive, although some may find them a little flat. They proved comfortable over the long haul. Black maple trim helped warm the interior. It’s exclusive to the E55.
The cabin is typical E-class, which means a nicely assembled interior and controls designed in the European idiom.
The dual zone automatic climate controls work well, allowing the passenger and driver to adjust the temperatures to their liking.
The face of the audio system pops open to reveal a cassette deck. An integrated weather band keeps you appraised of changing conditions. The station preset buttons double as the keypad for an optional cell phone — a nice design.
The only real down side to the interior was the cruise control stalk, which seems too easy to trip accidentally.
But that’s nit-picking, for this sedan has all the excellence that the E-Class provides in less powerful versions. To call it desirable is in an understatement. So is calling it seriously fast.
It’s also exceedingly rare.
Mercedes Benz plans to import only 2,000 of these rockets and they’re all spoken for. No wonder. With speed and agility far beyond mere mortal sedans, this car is one to remember. Even two decades from now.
>> 1999 Mercedes Benz E55
Vehicle type: Large, luxury 4-door sedan
Engines: 5.5-liter OHC V8
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 111.5 inches
Length: 189.4 inches
Cargo volume: 15.3 cubic feet
Tires: P245/40ZR-18 front, P275/ 35ZR-18 rear
Acceleration: 0-60: 5.4 seconds
EPA rating: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg highway
Test mileage: 13 mpg
Fuel type: Premium >>