- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

American consumers lust after diesel-powered automobiles with about the same degree of enthusiasm as they embrace soccer. It’s something we Yanks just can’t warm up to.

Our skepticism isn’t shrouded in mystery.

Those of us who were around for the last big diesel push in an attempt to offset the escalating fuel costs of the 1970s remember all too well when every intersection, stinking of diesel fuel, was a fog of black exhaust smoke punctuated by a clattering of engine parts.

Further alienating a generation brought up on GTOs and Challengers, diesel-powered cars of that era accelerated as if running on the ocean floor. Those diesels, though, are to the more recent crop of diesels what the accordion is to chamber music. Cleaner, quieter and more powerful, diesels came a long way during the decades that followed.

However, with the stricter 2007 United States emissions regulations, diesels must be even cleaner. Mercedes-Benz answered the challenge with the E320 Bluetec.

While still not meeting the more stringent emission standards of California and the four other states that share its emissions model, the E320 features an all-new V-6 turbo-diesel. It derives its Bluetec suffix from AdBlue, a layman’s term for the urea-based additive that with the mandatory use of the new ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel is mainly responsible for this diesel’s ultra-low emissions. AdBlue isn’t mixed with the fuel but is stored in a separate tank. Sprayed into the exhaust emissions, it breaks the harmful nitrogen oxides down into nitrogen and water. Mercedes says it will have a diesel that is 50-state compliant in the next year or two, when it brings a more efficient AdBlue injection system on line.

In the meantime, mileage-conscious drivers in the other 45 states can drive an E-class sedan with exceedingly better fuel economy and nearly identical acceleration to the gasoline-powered E350 for nearly the same price. At $52,325, the E320 is only $1,000 more than the E350. Both are powered by a V-6; however, the E320 uses a 208-horsepower 3-liter turbocharged diesel, while the E350 has a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.

While the E350 generates 60 more horsepower, the E320 produces 388 foot-pounds of torque to the E350’s 258 foot-pounds. Both engines funnel power to the rear wheels via a driver-adaptable seven-speed automatic transmission. According to the manufacturer’s tests, both dance to 60 mph from a standstill in about 6.5 seconds.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the E350’s fuel economy is an acceptable 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the open highway. Compare those numbers, though, to the E320’s 26 mpg and 37 mpg, respectively, and you have a significant savings. Putting a pencil to it, E320 owners driving 15,000 miles a year will recoup the extra cost in less than two years.

Outside of the advance in diesel technology found in the E320, the sedan is pure E-class. Other than the fact it can go as far as 780 miles between fill ups, it provides no clue that it isn’t your typical Benz.

The turbocharger is seamless, and the engine quiet. A fully independent suspension delivers a smooth ride and better than average handling. The four-wheel antilock disc brakes feature electronic brake assist and an electronic stability program.

This year’s E-class sedans borrow the Pre-Safe system from the S-class that prepares the cabin when it senses an imminent crash. Operating on information provided by the electronic brake assist and stability control, it snugs seat belts, closes windows and the sunroof, and brings the front seat backs to an upright position.

Handsomely appointed, the two-tone cabin is a rich blending of leather, wood and brightwork. Front- and rear-seat passengers alike have generous legroom and headroom.

The gauges are large and simple to decipher. Things are a tad more complex on the center stack. This is particularly true if you opt for the DVD-based navigation system. A 12-speaker Harman/Kardon surround-sound audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer is standard, as is a dual-zone automatic climate control and intermittent wipers with rain sensor capability. The trunk has 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space.

It’s nice to know you don’t have to settle for some little economy buzz bomb or pay a king’s ransom for hybrid technology to do the green thing. The E320 Bluetec skimps neither on luxury nor performance to achieve its healthy fuel-economy numbers. It is a Mercedes-Benz through and through.

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