What's the top family sedan on the market today, something that blends comfort and accommodations with safety, performance and practicality? One that's not too big and not too small, that's high on value and longevity? I'd have to go with the
Mercedes-Benz E320. Of course, it takes at least $47,000 to get one, which is why you'll never find the Benz among the year's top-selling sedans. But for those with the cash, the E320 remains the best choice for all the right reasons. This is a car
that does nearly everything well, and does it with style and grace. The E-Class cars - the V-6-powered E320, V-8-enhanced E430, fiery E55 and the E320 wagon - are Mercedes midrange cars and their best-selling models. Some buy them for luxury and
prestige, others for sturdiness and reliability. What do you get for your 47 grand? The E320 is a true luxury car, with an accommodating cabin filled with leather, wood, electronic gizmos, a fine stereo system, 10-way power seats and nicely crafted
appointments. There is a full array of advanced safety features, such a multiple airbags, including side-impact curtains; brake assist, which enhances brake-pedal pressure during panic stops; stability control; traction control; anti-lock brakes; and
Mercedes' vaunted safety-cell body structure. The initial feel of the E320 is heavy and vaultlike, with doors that close with a solid "thunk" and an interior that's tight and businesslike. Getting under way, the Benz quickly shows itself to be
nimble despite its heft, with responsive if slightly heavy steering, quick cornering capabilities and strong acceleration from the 221-horsepower V-6. The engine power is surprising. This is a relatively small V-6, but it pulls the hefty sedan with
authority right from the word go, due partly to a nicely engineered, two-stage intake manifold. The throttle is electronic, doing away with mechanical linkage. For those who yearn for more power, the E430 has a 275-horsepower V-8 and a bigger price
tag. Or, if you want your sedan to have race-car responsiveness, go for the E55, an AMG-enhanced V-8 model with 349 horsepower and major adjustments to suspension, steering, wheels and tires. AMG is Mercedes' performance arm, recently brought in-house
after years of independently tuning Benzes to howl. All E-Class cars, including the seven-seat wagon, are available with all-wheel drive. The five-speed automatic transmission nicely combines automatic shifting with a Touch Shift
do-it-yourself feature. This is probably my favorite auto-shift setup, with the shift lever always in position for manual shifting. Otherwise, the shifting lacks the sharp response that I expect from Mercedes. The shifts are slow and soft, even
under heavy throttle. And I still can't get used to the adaptive feature, which adjusts to individual driving characteristics. I find the shifting unpredictable and kind of annoying.
Handling is competent and refined, but it would be a stretch to call the E320 a sport sedan. The responses are sharp, but certainly not as much so as the 5-Series BMW. An optional Sport package offers stiffer suspension and performance wheels and
tires. The major competition comes from Toyota's Lexus division, always hot on Mercedes' tail. Last year, Lexus took the crown as top-selling luxury brand in the United States after Mercedes eclipsed Cadillac in 1999. The E-Class is hard to
beat, for those with the price of admission. It was a hard car to give up after toting my family and friends for a week. It would be the perfect car for us, except for that pesky price tag.