Mercedes E320 CDI

Base price: $47,795

Mileage: 27 mpg city, 37 mpg highway

Horsepower: 201 (369 pound-feet of torque)

Engine: Turbocharged 3.2 liter 24-valve in-line six-cylinder diesel

0-60: 6.8 seconds

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

As I rounded the sharp curve on the I-71 entrance ramp, I could feel the 2005 Mercedes E320 CDI hugging the turn, responding instantly to the accelerator as I caught up with traffic and effortlessly moved over to the high-speed lane. Not an unusual move, of course, but this car makes it a pleasure to do so.

Some drivers might wax enthusiastic about getting 201 horsepower from a six-cylinder diesel engine or generating 369 pound-feet of torque, or accelerating to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds. The truth is that when a car's base price is $49,795, impressive engineering, especially from Mercedes, is practically a given.

But the E320 CDI's amenities were what really captured my imagination. As I swept along that entrance ramp curve, light played across the burled poplar trim on the dash and door panels. I gripped the comfortable steering wheel wrapped in charcoal leather and used the easy-to-operate thumb controls to scroll through panels of information about climate control and the sound system, never taking my hands off the wheel.

With ease I changed from a classical music public radio station (which sounded great when I focused the speakers' output to an optimal position for my seat) to a CD featuring singer-songwriter John Hiatt and his mean acoustic guitar. While he sang, I followed the ramp's curve easily, thanks to Mercedes' bi-xenon active headlamps, which track with the steering.

Americans typically buy a first Mercedes for its cachet: No car generally available exudes more prestige, the air of "I've made it" without being ostentatious. Sighting down the highway over a Mercedes star medallion reminds you that you've arrived. But after the first rush you get from sliding into a leather-upholstered, heated seat with multiple adjustments (my sometimes troublesome 55-year-old back said thanks), the factor that converts most Mercedes owners into lifetime customers is safety.

The E320 CDI has dual front airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags, head-protection curtains for both front and rear passengers, antilock brakes, traction control, and other features that make the vehicle one that will protect you in any kind of a crash. (Mercedes owners, I've heard, are more likely to change vehicles out of boredom than necessity; most are driven by their original owner for more than 100,000 miles.) And Mercedes owners who've experienced an accident are even more likely to sign on for life.

The many amenities can be overwhelming. I heard that Mercedes recently targeted some 600 bells and whistles for elimination from current models because of their complexity. Such luxury features drive a higher price tag, of course, but when owners hang onto vehicles for years, these amenities also can malfunction and lead to expensive repairs.

Sure, it's nice to have a side-view mirror that flips down so you can see the curb when you're in reverse. Once your warranty is over, however, do you want to pay to repair it? Probably not. Don't think for a moment, however, that the experience of luxury isn't what many Mercedes owners value.

But nice frills (like a flip-up cup-holder for two beverages or a tiny drawer in the dash for your sunglasses) fade in the shadow of Mercedes' comfort and safety: The E320 CDI is a four-door sedan, the choice of most businesspeople, with easy ingress and egress for the front and back. The front seats remember three different settings, ordered up from a button on the door before the car is started "” in fact, before entering, so you don't have to squeeze or stretch according to the previous driver's adjustment.

Mercedes' Tele-Aid is Homeland Security at its best. Using satellite tracking, Mercedes will respond directly through the car's sound system (no phone is needed) to drivers' questions about emergency road situations and mechanical problems. In fact, Tele-Aid automatically contacts the vehicle if an airbag is deployed. If there's no answer, police will be dispatched to the car's precise location. That's a feeling of security that almost no other manufacturer can deliver.

The E320 CDI combines such amenities with fuel economy, reintroducing a diesel to the American market for the first time since 1999. Using efficient new technology available in Europe for nearly a decade, Mercedes will eliminate old perceptions that diesel engines are noisy, slow, and smoky. But the E320 CDI's power system is a quick starter that's quiet and efficient (so it burns up the fuel with stinky sulfur before you can smell it).

"CDI" stands for "Common-rail Direct Injection," a high-pressure fuel system that yields a remarkable 27 mpg for city driving and 37 mpg on the highway. A full tank (21.1 gallons) could easily take you from Cleveland to Cincinnati and back without refueling. Mercedes is cautiously importing only 3,000 E320 CDIs to the United States this year. It's a safe bet that number will increase dramatically when drivers catch on to its blend of comfort, security, luxury, and efficiency.

Rick Pender is an award-winning writer who was recently named Best Critic in Ohio by the statewide Society of Professional Journalists.