The Mercedes aura: impeccable quality at an immoderate price

When you talk or write about a car with the three-pointed star, the superlatives begin to flow and a certain aura surrounds everything that is said or written from that point on.

Well, a Mercedes is a car, after all. It uses a motor fuel, either gasoline or diesel; gives a magnificent ride, at least to this auto writer's taste; requires its share of back-shop upkeep; pleases a lot of buyers but undoubtedly disappoints others; boasts of impeccable quality; and costs a whole lot of money.

Indeed, the manufacturer - Daimler-Benz of Stuttgart, West Germany - has been unable to meet the worldwide demand for its cars, come good times or bad. Even in times of global financial distress - the mid-'70s gas crisis, for example - people were still lining up for the star.

One of its biggest markets is the United States, despite the fact that the least costly Mercedes, the 5-speed manual 190 with delivery on the East Coast, is list-priced at $22,850.

Indeed, the US affiliate has long shown an uncanny ability to set a sales target and then either meet or exceed it. This year it expects to sell 79,000 cars in the 50 states, up from 70,000 in 1983, with the upscale S-class cars accounting for 37 percent of the total. Its long-range outlook is 90,000-plus by 1988.

Price is no deterrent to the brisk sale of Mercedes-Benz cars. Bear in mind that the car I've been driving for the past week or so is a 380SE with a window sticker label of $42,730. Of course, that's the price for a complete car without the usual long list of options coming out of Detroit.

At $56,800, plus a $750 gas-guzzler tax because of the big, low-mileage, 5 -liter engine, the 500SEC is the highest-priced Mercedes-Benz auto sold in the US.

The lower cost 380SE sedan is a gasoline-fueled companion to the 300SD turbodiesel sedan and, in effect, uses the 155-horsepower engine of the 380SEL in the shorter body of the 300SD. Curb weight is 3,685 pounds

Space is voluminous in both front seat and rear. Even an extremely tall driver should have no trouble adjusting the seat for maximum leg position and comfort, all the while allowing adequate leg and knee room for anyone who's riding in the back. Wheelbase is 115.6 inches.

Even the so-called ''Baby Benz,'' the 190, has sufficient legroom in the front, a basic consideration during its design phase, although the rear space is a few inches less than in the larger cars.

The 380SE rides on an independent suspension, with coil springs, 4-wheel power disc brakes, anti-sway bar, heavy-duty tires, and single-tube, gas-pressurized shock absorbers.

Whether the ride is a brief one around town or a cross-country trip on the Interstate, the 380SE is in its element. Actually, it is probably more at home on the expressway, but it does its job well in suburbs or city.

Unlike some carmakers worldwide, Daimler-Benz is sticking to the front-engine/rear-drive configuration, figuring it won't gain any benefit by switching to front drive.

''Front drive is not the way to go with all cars,'' Dr. Werner Breitschwerdt said at the worldwide launching of the 190 in Spain a little more than a year ago.

''We stayed with rear drive for car balance as well as handling,'' he explained. At that time Dr. Breitschwerdt was head of research and development for Daimler-Benz, but just recently was elevated to the chairmanship.

Overall road performance and handling are important to Mercedes-Benz buyers. The 380SE, all things considered, should not disappoint.

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