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MERCEDES THINKS IT HAS A WINNER IN E420

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Do we really need a second reverse gear?

Mercedes-Benz thinks so. It's just one of the innovations that grace its new E420.Mercedes, which has seen some sales slip from buyers looking for sleeker styling, more performance and value for the dollar, thinks it has a winner in the new E420. "The Mercedes E420 will be a wakeup call to people who thought they had to go to Jaguar for distinctive styling or BMW for scintillating performance," said Mike Jackson, a Mercedes vice president.

"Because the E420 offers so much while costing less than key competitors like the Lexus LS400, we expect to sell 7,000 annually, up from 2,300 per year for the previous model."

So what does the E420 have that's going to draw buyers from BMW, Lexus and Jaguar? The E420 is priced at $49,900, $2,600 less than the '95 when one compares the additional new equipment on this model.

The new high-performance flagship of Mercedes boasts a double overhead-cam aluminum V-8 engine that can accelerate from 0-60 in 6.7 seconds. The V-8 uses electronically controlled variable intake valve timing to optimize low-end and mid-range torque without sacrificing high-end horsepower. Even with this added power it gets respectable fuel efficiency. EPA rates it 18 miles to the gallon in the city, 25 on the highway. And no gas guzzler tax goes with this model.

The E420 comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, which debuted in the new S-Class and SL models, and uses electronics to "learn" its owner's driving style and adapt the shifting pattern to it. The transmission is constantly adjusting for factors ranging from load and road incline to how quickly the driver depresses or releases the accelerator pedal. To minimize vibration and noise, the computer allows 60-80 rpm when lock-up engages. And, as to that second reverse gear, a winter shift program provides second-gear start as well as a second, "higher" reverse ratio.

The new E420 has a double wishbone front suspension and a tight body to provide the ride Mercedes is known for. Those wishing an even sharper handling experience can order a Sport package at $3,900 designed by AMG. (Mercedes adds that the package is about half the price of a similar aftermarket one.)

For added safety the car comes with door-mounted side airbags and a revolutionary Electronic Stability Program, or ESP, that Mercedes says instantly helps a driver maintain control in a hazardous situation. Every microsecond, electronic sensors and computer logic check to see that the car is going in the direction it is being steered. If the driver is pointing the car in one direction and the wheels suddenly begin to fishtail on a snow-covered curve, the ESP instantly applies one of the car's brakes to correct the situation.

The car's styling speaks for itself and shares much of its looks with other new E-Class sedans with those striking oval headlights. (The lights also use new technology, with a free-form reflector system and an optional xenon gas-discharge system.)

The E420 is loaded with other niceties, including a 200-watt, eight-speaker Bose sound system, separate heating controls for driver and passenger, an electronic dust filter and a three-position memory system for the seat, headrest, outside mirror and steering wheel position for three different drivers. There is even a front armrest with a two-level storage compartment that is ventilated by the climate-control system to protect film or other temperature-sensitive items in the compartments.

Mercedes has even upped the warranty, now providing four-year, 50,000-mile coverage that includes tires, batteries and adjustments.