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A Mercedes for those who value fancy engineering - and can afford it

It's one of the classiest sports coupes around - with a high-falutin' aura and decor all its own.

And if you have to ask how many miles it gets to a gallon, you probably can't afford to buy it anyway.

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Indeed, at around $52,000-plus apiece, the Mercedes-Benz limited-production 380SEC is a car apart. After all, how many other $52,000 cars do you pass on the road? To drive it is to have a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, if only in a momentary dream.

What is particularly noticeable about the car, or maybe it should be ''not noticeable in the car,'' is the engine - a 3.8-liter (234-cubic-inch), fuel-injected aluminum V-8 with a 4-speed automatic transmission. On more than one occasion during a week of driving the car, I wasn't sure whether the engine was running or not. It is that quiet and smooth. Oh, is it quiet.

Yet with a touch of the accelerator pedal, the car springs to life and you're on your way.

Not all Mercedes-Benz cars are anywhere nearly as quiet as the 380SEC. Just ask anyone who has driven one of its diesels. But then, that's a diesel for you. By its very nature the diesel car is noisy - and nothing can be done to make it as quiet as a well-tuned gasoline engine with heavy insulation inside the hood.

Why $52,000 for an automobile?

It's the engineering that makes a Mercedes worth the price, at least to some people. If a motorist does not appreciate the high level of engineering and execution, then spending so much money for a car makes little sense.

I still remember few years ago driving a 450-SEC, which spun on an interstate road due to ice and came to a stop only a couple of feet out of the lane in which I had been traveling at the time of the slip. While the car came to a stop facing in the opposite direction from the one I wanted to take, the car was not all over the road. Many cars would have been completely off the road.

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The balance and temperament of the 450-SEC were just what I required at the time.

Now the new 380SEC combines elegance awheel, superb handling, and top-flight acceleration all in one. But you have to understand what the manufacturer is trying to do with its cars.

While the Mercedes automobiles have an image of German design and engineering at its best, the cars do seem far more Germanic than the Munich-built BMW. The BMW automobile, whatever its level - the 320i or the top of the line - has a lighter appearance and feel about it. The styling is more fluid, more flowing. But it's hard to beat a Mercedes for the job it is designed to perform.

What do you want in a $52,000 car? A space-age AM-FM stereo; automatic or manual air conditioning; power seats, windows, and mirrors; full leather upholstery, a high-level finish both inside and out? The 380SEC has them all.

The car also has a device for warming the area where the concealed windshield wipers sit when not in use. The heat from the engine coolant, circulating through a small reservoir, melts the ice and snow at the base of the windshield. Also, electrically heated windshield-washer nozzles stay on the job even when the thermometer plummets below zero.

Then there are the options, only a few, on top of the $52,000 East Coast price - or $51,965, to be exact. On the West Coast the price is a few hundred dollars more. Shipping, you know. You also can have heated seats and power-adjustable rear seats.

The electric seat-adjustment controls are on the doors. Simple.

Finally, you don't drive a big-engine V-8 Mercedes for economy on the road. Yet the mileage isn't the worst, by any means.

The Rolls-Royce gets about half the mileage of the 380SEC; and the Aston Martin is well under it as well. At nearly 20 miles a gallon on the highway, I wasn't unhappy with the fuel bill.

But then, I didn't have to foot the cost of the car in the first place.

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