IT WAS A "Bonfire of the Vanities" mistake. The drive from Wilton, Conn., to New York City turned into a wrong turn off the Triboro Bridge that put us smack-dab in the middle of a seedy neighborhood in a sparkling white, 1994 Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan.

We were surrounded. People came from everywhere with little squeegee things and spray bottles demanding to clean our windows. "I know you're gonna let me clean this windshield, aren't you brother?" one man "asked" before beginning the unnecessary work without permission.

My partner and I dumped our liberal attitudes. She stared straight ahead, seemingly speechless, except for her undertone, clench-jawed mantra that went something like: "Get us the {expletive} outta here. Get us the {expletive} outta here . . . ."

After the first man "cleaned" our windshield and collected one dollar ("Damn, brother!," he said, looking at the single green thing), another demanded to do the job all over again.

I went gangster on the dude.

"Don't {expletive} with my {expletive} windshield," I said.

"{Expletive}, man, you packin'?" the second man asked.

Translation: "Are you carrying a gun?"

I looked at him and said nothing. He backed off. The light turned green. We headed toward the Third Avenue Bridge -- toward the presumed safety of New York's ritzy East Side, relieved that our close-encounter with status discrepancy relieved us of nothing more than a dollar, ashamed that we jettisoned our liberal philosophies so very easily.

Background: If you want a Mercedes-Benz, buy a Mercedes-Benz. If you want a car like a Mercedes-Benz, buy a Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln or anything else.

Buying something like a Mercedes-Benz became fashionable in recent years because Mercedes-Benz cars became so ridiculously expensive. The substitution syndrome caused lots of people to confuse "like" with reality -- to believe, for example, that Lexus equals Mercedes-Benz.

It's a misconception.

Mercedes-Benz is hands-down better. An 800-mile drive in the new E320 four-door sedan proved that much to me. In every respect -- construction, ride, handling, design, engineering and feel -- the new Mercedes-Benz E320 outclasses the comparable Lexus GS 300. Don't take my word for it. Do a comparison test and see for yourself.

During your research, you're likely to discover something else -- Mercedes-Benz prices are beginning to match those of its rivals. That's because Lexus and Infiniti prices are moving up as Mercedes-Benz prices are holding steady or -- gulp! -- in the case of the E320 sedan, coming down.

More efficient production processes, a more simplified options lineup and favorable currency exchange rates now allow Mercedes-Benz to sell the E320 for $42,500, versus $49,900 for the comparable 1993 Mercedes-Benz 300E Standard sedan. By comparison, the Lexus GS 300 comes in at around $38,000.

Is the new Merced es-Benz $4,000 better than the Lexus? Yep!

The 1994 Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars include the 300 Diesel; the tested, gasoline-powered 320 sedan; a 320 coupe, convertible and station wagon; and the super-luxurious E420 and 500 sedans.

All E-Class models are front-engine, rear-drive models equipped with standard dual-front air bags, automatically tensioning seat belts, anti-lock brakes, four-speed automatic transmission, power windows and power door locks.

The standard E320 engine is a 3.2-liter, 24-valve inline six-cylinder job rated 217 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, with a maximum torque of 229 foot-pounds at 3,750 rpm.

Complaints: None, at least, nothing that showed up during the test drive.

Praise: Enough said, except that, well, trunk space is pretty decent at 14.6 cubic feet.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Best ride and handling of any sedan in its class. Tight without being brutal. Superior lane-change and "escape" acceleration. Superior b aking. The test car was equipped with optional electronic traction control to help re duce wheel slippage when starting from stop on wet roads.

Mileage: Surprising! About 24 to the gallon (18.5-gallon tank, estimated 430-mile range on usable volume of required premium unleaded), running mostly highway with two to four occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Eight-speaker, electronic stereo radio and cassette with trunk-mounted, six-disc player, by Becker -- which finally has learned how to make a decent car stereo.

Price: Base price on the tested E320 is $42,500. Estimated dealer invoice is $35,500 (1994 Mercedes-Benz dealer margins have been trimmed by about two percent). Estimated price as tested is $46,999, including $2,590 in options, $400 in destination charges, and $1,509 in patently discriminatory and probably unconstitutional "luxury taxes."

Purse-strings note: If you want and can afford a Mercedes-Benz, buy or lease one. Also, buy a map.