The Mercedes S-class is the top of the line, the type of car that in an earlier time would have competed against such American makes as Packard, Duesenberg, or Pierce Arrow. Sadly, no American car slugs it out in this league any more, leaving it to a handful of foreign marques.

What a pity. For this car is in many ways a modern iteration of what those fabled autos were: fast, secure, conservative, made of only the finest materials.

There are five ways to buy an S-class sedan. The "S" designation refers to the line of cars, in this case the Mercedes full-sized sedan line. The numeric designation refers to the engine.

The "entry-level" sedan is the S320, powered by a 228-horsepower in-line six. Base price: $64,000 for the standard wheelbase, $67,300 for the long wheelbase.

Next up is the S420, which employs a 275-horsepower V8 and a suggested starting price of $73,900.

If you feel your V8 should have more zest, step up to S500 and its muscular 315-horsepower V8. It starts at $87,500.

Finally, the line tops out with the extravagant S600, with a fire-breathing 389-horsepower V12 and a starting price of $132,250. (Zero-60 takes a hair more than six seconds. Yum!)

No matter what engine lies under the hood, its power feeds through a new five-speed automatic transmission that not only adapts to driving style, but also to changes in road grade. It also takes into account the pace at which you're driving and adjusts the shift points accordingly. In any case, the transmission shifts smoothly, and always seems to be in the proper gear.

The test vehicle was an S420, and it lived up to the manufacturer's claim of 0-60 an 8.1 seconds. Although power is only average at initial launch, it builds quickly, giving this sedan impressive muscle at speed.

Braking is no-nonsense and quick. With 12.6-inch discs in front, 11.4-inch in back, it's little wonder things come to halt quickly. Pedal feel is progressive, with good modulation.

Handling is the perfect blend of tautness and suppleness that few automakers can match. With its bank-vault structure, the rutted paths that PennDOT calls roads have little effect on the car or its occupants.

Body lean is minimal, and other intrusions, like wind or road noise, are non-existent. Thanks should go to such great details as double-pane windows, which insure a quiet ride.

But this is a luxury car, and not a faux luxury car, either. This is the type of auto one finds in such quantities in places like Palm Beach that you'd swear everyone owned one.

What do you get for these house-sized prices?

First, you gets a lot of safety features, such as front and side air bags, traction control and anti-lock brakes.

New for 1998 is the BabySmart system, which deactivates the front passenger-side air bag when a Mercedes Benz BabySmart child seat is used. When the seat isn't occupied by a person weighing over 26 pounds, the air bag will not deploy.

If you're not applying enough braking force in an emergency situation, Brake Assist recognizes it and applies more braking pressure. The traction control system not only uses braking power to regain traction, it also reduces engine power.

Second, there are a ton of little niceties that appeal to the most jaded of auto writers. The doors and trunk have pneumatic assists to pull them shut over the last half inch of travel. The steering wheel has tilt and telescoping features and is power activated. It's tied into a memory profile system that remembers other settings, like seat position.

Of course, leather and burled walnut trim line the interior. An 11-speaker Bose audio system transforms the car into a mobile concert hall. The trunk lid has a retracting handle that helps it to close, then disappears, thus preventing you from dirtying your hands.

Third, it comes with extraordinary systems to prevent theft and ensure safety. The keyless ent ry uses infrared technology that incorporates an anti-cloning feature. It also has a summer mode, which opens all the windows and sunroof to clear the car of warm air before you enter.

The doors automatically lock at 9 mph, and the car will not start unless the correct key is used. There also is an infrared rain sensor that measures rain intensity and adjusts wiper speed accordingly. The headlamps are xenon-gas discharge; they have a cool cast and are less blinding than standard headlamps. Available is Mercedes Parktronic system, which uses sensors to detect when you're too close to an object and sounds a warning.

With this type of opulence, it's little wonder this Mercedes has garnered praise from many different sources, and not just bluebloods or yours truly. AAA named the S500 the best car over $50,000. Intellichoice named the S320 a "Best Value" in the luxury class. Robb Report named the S600 its "Best Luxury Car."

Certainly, few cars in the world compare. With its extreme handling capabilities, generous feature list and opulent ways, few autos give quite the thrill that driving this one does.

What's sadder is that America once fielded competitors of this caliber, but no longer does.

Nationalism aside, it's a treat that a car like this still exists. Try one before it's legislated out of existence.

1998 Mercedes S420

Standard: 4.2-liter double overhead-cam 32-valve V8, five-speed electronic automatic transmission, speed-dependent power steering, automatic slip control, 235/60R16 tires with six-hole alloy wheels, automatic climate control with charcoal filter, leather upholstery, burled walnut trim, front and rear folding armrests with cup holders, remote locking, cruise control, Bose sound system, CD-cellular phone pre-wiring, AM/FM/weather band cassette radio, power glass sunroof, headlamp washers, front and rear reading lamps and vanity mirrors, electropneumatic door and trunk closing assist, auto dimming rearview and driver's side mirrors, electric tilt/telescopic steering wheel, retractable rear headrests, power windows with express up and down, intermittent wipers with rain sensors, integrated garage door opener, dual front and side air bags, anti-theft system, halogen foglamps, power four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and brake assist.

Options: Electronic Stability Program, xenon-charged headlamps, heated front seats.

Base price: $73,900

As tested: $78,340

EPA rating: 15 mpg city, 22 mpg highway

Test mileage: 17 mpg