BY JOHN FORDHAM IN AN interview, I once asked the great jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins if he had any plans for doing anything differently on a forthcoming tour. He responded with restrained incredulity, as if I had asked if he was planning to appear at all the shows wearing a frogman's suit and a cloche hat. "Well... basically... it's me," he finally, haltingly, explained. Any official at the Mercedes Benz company would probably react similarly. If you happen to build cars as enduringly good as theirs, the only marketing ploy your regular customers want to hear is that this year, well, basically, you'll still be doing it.
In this context, the new E-class Mercedes is a little out of the ordinary. Aimed at the middle to upper luxury sector, it is being sold simultaneously as something different and something the same. There's the confidently traditional four-square slatted grille, and the familiar three-pointed icon. But gone are the boxed-in headlamp units that have dominated body styling for a generation. Mercedes has gone back to circular headlamps, so the auto design wheel turns another notch. We're looking at our cars afresh, Mercedes Benz is saying.
But is it true? Well, yes and no. The new 2.0-litre and 3.2-litre E-class cars use the same engines as the previous series, though revised ones are on the way. But the styling departs modestly, but significantly, from traditional Mercedes conservatism with those very distinctive headlamps; there's also a more undulating shapeliness to the areas around the boot and rear lights. The interior design has been brightened - indeed it is almost vivacious compared to the usual stolid, understated opulence. The headroom and legroom would make even a full complement of rugby prop forwards comfortable - thus solving a space problem present in the outgoing E-class models.
Most of the usual Mercedes refinements are available - though of course, a good few of them add some chunky arithmetic to the basic price. The traditional sweetly acting automatic gearbox, almost an essential to get the full graceful pay-off from driving a Mercedes, comes in at nearly pounds 1,500 on top of the basic pounds 24,000 for an E-200, as does air-conditioning. Twin airbags and anti-lock braking are standard, but provision is made in these models for fitting airbags in the doors - another optional extra.
Mercedes is promoting this car as a mixture of a subtle rethink and an improved safety package, and it's certainly better kitted out, more spacious, more economical with fuel, and probably has marginally better protection than its very accomplished predecessors. But just how close to the popular conception of hushed Mercedes elegance the E-class comes does depend on which model you go for.
The E200 is the entry-level version, with the old four-cylinder engine design; if you drive it at all forcefully, the power unit emits an un- Merc-like sound of agitation as the revs rise. The solution here is to ascend several steps on your bank manager's anxiety scale, and go for the more silkily powerful but much more expensive six-cylinder engine. This one is also a little more thumpy over bad roads - the result of modifying the suspension to suit a more hustling driving style - but the gentle re-tune is noticeable in the immensely secure and very agile handling.
The new E-class isn't perfect in its cheaper forms, but it's undeniably very good, and up against middle-sector contenders from BMW and Audi that are no longer quite perfect either. A big factor in a Mercedes purchase, though, is the stability of the resale prices and consequent competitive pricing of leasing deals. The E-class is also beautiful to look at, as opposed to just self-satisfied - a very seductive change.
GOING PLACES: A quiet and relaxing motorway cruiser, but the 2.0-litre engine in the starting-price model is a shade overwrought on hard acceleration: 30-70mph overtaking speed in 12 seconds; torque (pulling power) not bad at 140lb/ft at 4,000 revs per minute; usual state-of-the-art Merc auto gearbox, but a pounds 1,400 optional extra.
STAYING ALIVE: Improved handling, though suspension tweaking has hardened the ride a little; steering responses even better than formerly; anti- lock brakes standard; twin front airbags, side impact bars, seatbelt pre- tensioners, door-trim airbags optional; visibility very good; driving position adjustability very good.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Improved legroom and headroom; good boot-space and interior storage; power steering; remote central locking; very comfortable seating, powered front seats; quality stereo, electric sunroof and mirrors.
BANGS PER BUCK: Twin airbags, power seats, fuel economy good for size at approximately 26mpg in town, 35mpg at motorway speeds. Mercedes reputation and consequent high resale values. Price pounds 24,000-pounds 26,425.
STAR QUALITY: Build standards, finishing and engineering space. Comfort. Better handling and steering.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: 2.0-litre engines sound strained under pressure; ride quality a little sacrificed to handling; extras expensive.
AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 520 (pounds 23,000) - great handler, crisp performance, boring cabin, ride a little hard, new 5-series on the way; Audi A6 2.0 SE (pounds 21,023) - good value, very well built, roomy, but still an Audi 100 underneath, and dull to drive; Vauxhall Omega 2.0 16v (pounds 18,700) - one of the surprises of 1995, excellent handling and road manners, spacious, very good specification, but noisier and lacking class.