I confess bias: I like Mercedes. I've owned several, though by the time they got down to my level they were getting on a bit. But they last, these beasts with the three-point star, which is one of the reasons we respect them. How many other up-market breeds do you find serving out their last decade as African taxis bouncing along pot-holed dirt roads, and still getting you there?
It's a treat, therefore, when a brand new one comes to stay for a few days, delivered to your door. This is the chief perk of being a motoring correspondent, regarded by everyone else as compensation for inadequate pay. When the car is the new E-Class saloon, it's hard to argue.
I had the petrol E 320 V6 model. Having driven its earlier S-Class variant, I knew this engine was powerful and flexible but was still surprised by the electronic tweakings they've contrived for this model. The figures - 0-62.5mph in 7.7 seconds, maximum speed 149mph - are plenty fast enough for most of us, but they feel like an underestimate when you take handling into account. This car has the agility and sure-footedness of a super-feline. I drove it as fast as I dared on a long winding road with swan's-neck bends, no braking, just power off or on, and it went like a rattle-snake.
You can set up the suspension to standard or winter (slower) driving at the click of a button, but, for me, the key to its pleasurable performance was the electronically adaptive accelerator, which adjusts itself to your style. That brings the five-speed automatic gearbox into play just when you want it. And if that's not good enough you can use the Tipfunction to change manually with a touch on the selector. Distronic radar-assisted cruise control is an extra (though cruise control itself is standard). With some models you can opt for the six-speed manual gearbox, but many find that awkward to co-ordinate with the Mercedes foot-operated parking brake. Anyway, automatics suit Mercedes better.
The fly-by-wire braking system is excellent. By connecting the pedal electronically to the main brake cylinder, it removes the need for vacuum-powered assistance; a microprocessor then activates the hydraulic brakes via electronic pulses. Despite thousands of miles in fly-by-wire aeroplanes, I'm old-fashioned enough to worry about the lack of mechanical levers where brakes are concerned. What happens when floodwater gets into the computer or shorts out the battery and there's a complete power failure? Everything stops, I guess. But mechanical brakes failed, too, sometimes, and these clever electronic ones worked superbly on my personal brake testing ground (a permanently muddy stretch of country lane at the foot of two hills). Also, they shorten the stopping distance by 3% at 70mph, which could mean the difference between this world and the next. And if that's not enough, there is the Electronic Stability Programme, six airbags, a reinforced cage and a rollover sensor. You're about a safe as you can be in a car.
Nor do you pay as much to Gordon Brown as you might expect for the privilege of sitting behind an engine this size: CO/2 emission is 238 g/km, urban mpg 19.1, extra urban 37.7, combined a surprising 28.5. That fifth gear is high: at 70mph the engine turned over at about 2,300rpm. The E 320 costs £33,440 but its diesel equivalent, when it comes, will be £645 less. The range starts with the E 200 at £24,940, though the £27,435 E 270 CDI (43.5mpg combined) might be most people's value for money choice.
Mercedes have sensibly retained their family resemblance over the years, making incremental alterations with each generation, but the alterations have all been in one direction. They've become sleeker, more understated, less assertive, less square - more feminine, perhaps. This model is as close to the S-Type Jaguar in its lines as to its own bulkier, rectangular head-lighted ancestors. My own favourite, the previous slab-sided S-Class, always looks as if it should be driven by gentlemen at least as large and unsubtle as the former Chancellor Kohl, but the lines of this new E-Class make it something for the girls as well. Nor only the lines: it's a neat, tight, responsive, well mannered drive, considerate and the very opposite of bulky in its feel, yet with ample room and boot-space.
The interior is light, spacious and uncluttered, with imaginative storage and gentle ambient roof lighting at night. The instrument cluster is a masterpiece, with just three clear, beautifully lit dials and attractively novel fuel and temperature gauges. Speed is indicated digitally as well as on the dial, a surprisingly nice touch. The seats are good; I have a demanding lower spine that soon knows if they're otherwise.
Quibbles? Well, the centre air vents on top of the dash are reflected distractingly in the windscreen. Tyre noise is more noticeable than you might think. You seem to sit lower in it than in earlier models, some of which made you feel you were sitting on the car rather than in, which I - idiosyncratically - prefer. At very low speeds, when starting or stopping, it sometimes burps a little. The rear centre seat, with its three-point belt, would be uncomfortable for adults on long journeys. It's worth confirming with Mercedes that the dynamic range adjustment on the Bi-Xenon headlamps is sufficient for switching to continental driving; if not, they may be too hot for beam deflectors.
But these are just that: quibbles. For years now the BMW 5 series has been the industry benchmark and the E-Class, though often rated better overall, has been described as less involving to drive. I've not driven the latest 5 series and I suspect the difference is really a matter of taste, but I find it hard to imagine a more complete saloon than this car. The problem for Mercedes is that it's so good it could make the S-Class redundant, unless you're being chauffeured.
My only serious objection is that they took it back this morning.