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Intermediate-size Mercedes continue a tradition of high quality

Slip down into the driver's seat, click the safety belt shut, shove the car into first gear, and step hard with your right foot. In a flash the new-model gasoline-injected Mercedes 300E is on its way -- fast. No, it isn't a high-powered sports car -- it's the West German carmaker's top-model intermediate, which shares the spotlight with six other cars, ranging from the base-line 200D with a 4-cylinder diesel all the way up to the 187-horsepower 300E. The American version, not yet ready, will have a mite less oomph.

Two years after the launch of its trend-setting 190, the so-called ``baby Benz,'' the Mercedes builder has once more made itself heard and seen on the road.

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Daimler-Benz has just redesigned and reengineered its entire midrange lineup of cars, only some of which will be sold in the United States. Upscale from the new lineup rolls the larger, highly touted S-class.

It isn't often that the Mercedes builder comes out with a new model. Its secret has long been, and still is, ``continuity of design,'' state-of-the-art engineering, high quality, and a deliberate refusal to produce enough cars to meet the demand. The system has worked for a long time, through good times and bad.

To introduce the new-series lineup of cars to the world's automotive media, the West German company selected the same site in southern Spain that it chose for the 190 preview in 1982. Several ``test routes'' provided a variety of road surfaces and terrain, including an autopista, or toll road, that links the Andalusian cities of Seville and Cadiz.

As with the ``baby Benz'' in '82, the new range of intermediate-size Mercedes cars lived up to the advance billing by the carmaker.

The body is wedge-shaped, the surfaces smooth, and the front and rear glass flush. The high-trailing-edge, V-motif trunk may be the most controversial part of the design of the new car line.

One thing the new design has done is reduce the drag coefficient to the superlow figure of 0.29 to 0.30, depending on the model -- one of the best figures found anywhere in the world. The rear-end design also gives more space inside the trunk.

Weight is reduced by up to 9 percent compared with the car lines that the new series replaces.

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The new cars use a MacPherson-strut-type front suspension as well as the multi-link independent rear suspension of the 190. The single-blade eccentric-sweep windshield wiper clears an astounding 86 percent of the glass. The ``pumping action'' of the wiper, though, could be a distraction.

Cornering and straight-line stability are first rate and so is the instrumentation.

Among the engines are three diesels -- 4, 5, and 6 cylinders, the latter a first in a Mercedes-built passenger car. The base-line gasoline-fueled 200 uses a carburetor, while a 4-cylinder fuel-injected engine propels the 230E. The 260E is powered by a 6-cylinder fuel-injected engine; a more potent version of the same engine is used for the 300E.

Both of the lower-weight 6-cylinder gasoline-fueled engines are all new, the company asserts, including electronic ignition. The 4-cylinder engine carries a 4-speed manual gearbox as standard, with an optional 5-speed manual that is standard on the two larger engines. An automatic 4-speed transmission is also an extra-cost option. Disc brakes are used on all four wheels.

While there was no way to measure the fuel consumption of any of the cars, the company says that savings range from 12 to 25 percent over the older-model cars. When the Americanized versions of some of the cars arrive, we'll be able to run a mileage test on them. The m.p.g. improvement, of course, will be less because of the strict emission-control laws in the US.

Obviously the diesel-powered models do not exhibit the whoosh of the 300E. Yet the word diesel is very much a part of the Stuttgart-based company's vocabulary, even though General Motors has finally given up on passenger-car diesel engines.

While the US, Britain, and Japan will not get the new cars till 1986, they'll be going on sale in most of Western Europe in the early months of 1985. As in the past, the US will not receive the entire range, but it is quite certain that the high-level 300E and a turbodiesel version of the 300D will be sent here.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.


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