Since the Cranes have a 10-year-old 300TE that has survived nearly 170,000 miles, it was considered at least interesting to have an owner take a look at how far Mercedes-Benz has come in a decade.--Ed.

It was like comparing a Beech 18 with a Learjet 23: They are both handsome, useable, effective machines but represent different worlds of performance and pleasure. My 1990 300TE continues to feel like it was milled from a billet, but the current E320 wagon, created for a new generation steeped in Asia's best "American" cars, is softer, friendlier and more luxurious. These new buyers expect the Mercedes name to bring all the safety and cultural respect it has represented for decades, but they seem unwilling to tolerate the Teutonic inefficiencies and ergonomic anomalies which have long made their way into U.S.-bound models.

So, the E320 is brilliant. It is fast, effective, useful and comfortable. Even with a new E-Class on the horizon (Europe gets the new model in 2002), the current W124-series chassis boasts state of the art engineering details: Double wishbone front suspension with anti-lift and anti-dive geometry; multi-link rear suspension with lift, squat and ride height control; gas-charged dampers; anti-roll bars front and rear, both stability and traction control; and, on this elegant, easy-to-slip-into sport and utility vehicle, magical four-wheel drive. Nothing to fault. It makes you feel like a hero...in a Zegna. In use it's effortless. The not too lightly loaded rack-and-pinion steering gives a nearly perfect simulation of actual road feel, but it does give you confidence when you have resigned from utility and have chosen to make sport. Suddenly it looks like a wagon and feels like a coupe.

The engine is M-B's twin-spark three-valve 3.2-liter V6 that produces 85 percent of its torque at 2000 rpm and sustains maximum torque from 3000 to 4600 rpm. There are 212 horses available instantly through a dual-stage resonance intake system with sequential fuel injection. All that makes my old 300 feel like it's hand-cranked. The new car is crisp. That is what new tech brings to the game. From tick-over to full throttle, the system is perfectly timed and fed to react instantly to any demand. When traffic requires a quick pass from 80 past 100, it happens in seconds. The top-speed limiter finally shuts it all down at 130, the car still felling full of enthusiasm and completely attached to the road.

Even the sedan has the limiter, but with its remarkable drag coefficient of 0.29 Cd, it would be fun to disarm it to see "what she'll do." The wagon is a little bigger and has a roof interrupted by bars and rods that raise the Cd to 0.34, but even that number would have been considered incredible a decade ago. That purity of form sullied by a little wind noise at the A-pillars, and considerable noise finds its way into the rear compartment at a steady 80-mph cruise--enough to go in search of the book that describes the volume control on the inconceivably complex radio. Still, at moderately high cruising speeds the new car is far ahead of my old one in terms of noise suppression.

The trade-off for exterior sound making its way through the thin walls of the rear compartment is real space. There is seating for seven, if two of them are incredibly tolerant and don't mind staring out the back window at the trucker tailgating behind you. It's best for children.

One irritating piece of automation is the rear window wiper. Now, I love the idea of that wiper, but Mercedes has programmed it to automatically wipe the rear window when you select reverse and have the windshield wipers on. If you happen to have a dirty car and you have chosen to hit your windshield washer before you back up, the rear wiper will scrape across your dirty rear window and cause permanent damage. I happen to know this too well.

Then, when the sports family needs utility, the luggage compartment has 44 cu ft of space with the third seat stowed. Plus, you can fold the second seat from its 60/40 split to multiply the space again, and if you are using your E320 Wagon as a truck, you can pull up and remove the second seat bottom and fold the front passenger seat forward to have a full 10 ft of flat storage space and a solo seat for yourself.

A terrific idea is the double-roll luggage cover. It gives the visual security of a sedan when it is pulled closed. Even better is the second roll, a dog net that pulls up and connects on the C-pillar. It is so difficult to install and remove the metal ones that we have never used one, but this can be pulled up or let down in seconds, and the complete double-roll assembly can be removed from the car and leave the vast open spaces uninterrupted when the seats are folded.

A still higher lever of utility is available when the weather turns sour. 4Matic is a full-time all-wheel-drive system that uses a 35/65 front/rear torque split and needs no driver intervention. If three wheels lose traction, the torque is directed to the single wheel where the system has diagnosed that traction remains. Also included in the traction package is the Electronic Stability Control, which uses either a single brake or throttle intervention or a combination of both to keep things pointed in the right direction. The complete system weighs under 200 lb and is completely invisible to the occupants except for the yellow warning light in front of the driver when the system has engaged.

It was interesting to be sweeping through a clear, northern winter night where the afternoon sun had started to melt the snowbanks along the road. The runoff had made 2- or 3-ft-wide streams across the pavement that by midnight had frozen solid and invisible. Every few minutes I could feel the front tires let go, and the yellow light with the warning triangle and a very appropriate explanation point in the middle would blink on and let me know the magic was at work. After hours on the road applauding the quality of my surroundings, it was even better to recognize the real security of M-B tech.

On a long trip our old 300 can get a little tiring; it is using 3800 revs at 80 and can feel anxious, even breathless, while the 320 is only using 2800 revs and seems almost lighthearted. The overdrive five-speed automatic gearbox gives you both efficiency and immediate response with its instant gear changes on demand. All that cleverness gave me just under 20 mpg for a 1,200-mile trip and a full-tank range of nearly 300 miles. Now, when you add manual selection you have sport.

The Touch Shift function on the gear lever is actually at the "Drive" position in the gate. If you need to select third for torque braking on a steep descent, you simple bump the lever to the left a couple of times. To return to full automatic mode, simply hold the lever to the right for a second and the system returns to full automatic Drive mode.

The system will also outsmart the enthusiastic gear changer by not allowing a change down that would put the revs over the redline. But, in fact, this gearbox is so quick and so selective that for acceleration from a high-speed cruise it will automatically and instantaneously select fourth or third as the aggression of your stomp suggests. And there is still another alternative, the "Winter" switch, which causes the gearbox to start in second and makes the change-up at lower engine speeds.

Somehow the gearbox will also program itself to the style of driving it is encountering. If your light-footed mother borrows your car, the changes will be smooth and gentle in a low rev range. If your teenage daughter is late for a party, it will bang shifts at the redline--at which point you will have to put your faith in the full halo of airbags installed in Mercedes-Benz's legendary safety cell body structure. Better still is the electronic stability control system (ESP) that can stay ahead of, even outsmart, the most overzealous teen. If the driver misses the entrance to the complex and rushes in through the exit and becomes suddenly conscious of four flat tires, there is even the Tele-Aid system. You simply touch the "SOS" button above the rearview mirror, and you have immediate voice contact with help.

One of the loveliest things you will ever see on the road will be that blue and white E320 Wagon with "Service" carefully lettered on its flanks. Mercedes has made owning their wundercars nearly effortless. The new cars all come with a four-year/50,000-mile warranty that includes tires, batteries, adjustments and free scheduled maintenance. Not to forget that lovely blue and white wagon which can offer a free jump start, tire change or even a few gallons of fuel to any Mercedes ever made. Imagine the service technician's face when he arrives with a wagon load of technology and sees you waiting patiently in your 540K Special Roadster full of coils and points and even a carburetor. Do you suppose he can call the Classic Service Center in Stuttgart for specs?

Mercedes-Benz E320 Wagon 4Matic
Engine: 3199cc, naturally aspirated, sohc, 18V, V6, sequential fuel injection, electronic throttle control
Power: 221 bhp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 232 lb-ft @ 3000-4600 rpm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, Touch Shift manual control plus automatically selected four-wheel drive with limited slip differentials
Wheels/tires: 7.5X16, 215/55 HR16
Top speed: 130 mph, electronically limited
Acceleration, 0 to 60: 8.2 sec.
Suspension, front: Double wishbone, coil springs, gas shocks, stabilizer bar, anti-lift and anti-dive geometry
Suspension, rear: Five-link, coil springs, gas shocks, stabilizer bar, anti-lift and anti-squat geometry
Brakes, f/r: 11.8-in. ventilated discs/11.4-in. ventilated discs
Stability and traction control: Single brake application and throttle intervention
Dimensions
L/W/H: 190.4 /70.8/59.3 in. including roof rails
Track f/r: 60.4/60.6 in.
Steering: variable-rate rack and pinion, hydraulic power assist
Turns (lock to lock): 3.3
Curb weight: 3,926 lb with 4Matic
Fuel tank: 18.5 gal.
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