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Never mind the Psychic Hotline - here comes the 1997 Mercedes-Benz E420 sedan with ESP.

What's next in the ever-evolving, high-tech battle of driver-solicitous sedans from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, other foreign makers and, to a lesser degree, American carmakers? One that runs errands while you sit at home and recall the days when they were driven by the seat of your pants and not by themselves?At any rate, ESP means Electronic Stability Program, which minimizes the risk of slippery surfaces or, perish the thought, driver error. If the 3,800-pound E420 isn't going in the direction suggested by the steering wheel - i.e., if the rear's fishtailing or the front's pushing out - ESP takes corrective action. It will brake one or more of its wheels, cut engine torque or upshift to correct oversteer or understeer, and you continue on your way.

A case of overengineering? Perhaps. But maybe Mercedes engineers are aware of the freeway follies staged when Atlanta has a snow jam or a sudden sprinkle. Or perhaps cars can be made safer than most motorists suspect.

The performance (zero-to-60 mph in 6.7 seconds) and luxury (leather and walnut interior, power seats, steering wheel) of the E420 are major selling points. But the rakish sedan - note the Jaguar-ish round headlamps and sloped grille - is a testament to the safety features that are possible.

As is usually the case, however, you pay for protection. The E420 lists for $49,900. Options and the 10 percent luxury tax on the amount greater than $32,000 pushed the tester's bottom line to $56,574.

But consider what you get, in addition to ESP. There's traction control (Automatic Slip Control or ASR), dual front and side air bags, power anti-lock disc brakes and height-adjustable and self-tensioning belts for five occupants.

Luxury items range from 10-way power-adjustable front seats with three memory settings to a power tilt/telescope steering wheel to an ear-pleasing stereo. And don't forget leather and walnut interior, drink holders and rear headrests that can be lowered from the line of vision from the driver's seat.

The automatic climate control system, too, is a thinker. If it deems the level of smog or pollution unhealthful, it recirculates cabin air instead of pulling in fume-laden air.

Performance? In addition to its quick acceleration, the E420's swooshy V-8 (275 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pounds-feet of torque at 3,900 rpm) is a typically Teutonic freeway flier with a comfortably firm ride and responsive handling characteristics. The adaptive transmission adjusts shift points after learning whether you're an aggressive or complacent driver.

Those are some of the reasons why Mercedes expects the significantly refined '97 E420 to more than double last year's sales of about 2,300 in the United States. Chances are that the Mercedes star's handsome looks and luxury will be a major factor in most sales.

And that's the shame, because while the E420's occupant-protecting features can frustrate a competent performance-oriented driver and up the price, they also make it a car that deserves an extremely high safety ranking.

Test vehicle: Price of the 1997 Mercedes-Benz E420 five-passenger, rear-drive sedan as tested: $56,574, including luxury tax

Safety features: dual front air bags, dual front side air bags, power anti-lock disc brakes, Automatic Slip Control (ASR), Electronic Stability Program (ESP), height-adjustable shoulder belts at all positions.

Drivetrain: 4.2 liter V-8 engine with 32 valves (275 horsepower), driver-adaptive five-speed automatic overdrive transmission.

Options on test vehicle: mobile phone and CD changer, $3,845; glass sunroof, $1,070; Xenon headlamps, $950; headlamp washers, $330.

EPA figures: 18 mpg premium unleaded city; 25 mpg highway.