By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2004

The Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG is the best car I've tested in 15 years.

The what? Few people have even heard of this model. Fewer have seen it.

The E55 AMG is a handcrafted modification of the mid-size Mercedes-Benz sedan, dubbed the E series. That remarkable sedan (the E320 was long my "best compromise" car) is remade as a performance sedan any sheik would be proud to flee a toppling regime in. It gets a hand-made, supercharged V8 engine that pumps out a monstrous 469 horsepower. It gets a new suspension system, enlarged brakes and more computers than NASA has to monitor the space station.

A division called AMG does this work for Mercedes. And when the AMG magicians are finished, the resulting E55 AMG sedan is the fastest production sedan on the planet. Not by a little bit either. This car is so fast that only a handful of two-seat sport cars can run with it. And they are torture chambers compared to the E55.

This car has it all-performance, handling, safety, comfort, convenience. All this does have a price, of course. The E55 begins at $77,650. But our tester truly had it all, exactly the way this remarkable sedan should be equipped, and the sticker topped out at $90,985.

Performance is the bottom line reason a buyer would favor the E55 over any competitor. The supercharged engine rockets the sedan from zero to 60 in a mind-blowing 4.5 seconds. That's a quickness normally associated with motorcycles, not cars. The quarter-mile passes in the mid-12s, a figure usually reserved only for modified drag racing cars.

So fierce is full-bore acceleration in the E55 that it twice gave me a headache between the eyes. Felt like I'd bitten into an ice cream cone. It was the slam-me-back force of that power that drained the blood from my head. And it has just as much reserve power at 75 miles an hour as it has standing still at a stoplight.

The temptation to speed in the E55 is always present. So it's a good thing that the car has a radar cruise control system. Turn on the system and radar measures distance to a vehicle ahead and maintains a specific distance you set. If that vehicle slows, you slow. If it speeds up, you speed up. If you need to pass, pull into the left lane and the E55 accelerates to your chosen speed.

The computer-controlled braking system is the strongest I've ever experienced in a car. These are monster brakes that scrub speed as fast as this car can gain speed.

The driver's seat is unique. Its basic shape is that of one found in a race car, with secure lateral support for chest and hip. But this one has support wings filled with air bladders. As forces increase in a turn, the air bladders inflate on the side opposite the turn direction-turn left and right bladders puff up to secure you in place. It's a strange feeling, like the hand of God reaching down to hold you in position to safely complete the turn. No other automaker has anything like these "drive dynamic seats" as M-B calls them.

Worth noting is that the seat has air-conditioning vents built in to keep your shirt or blouse sweat free on hot days. Heating is available in winter, of course.

On the steering wheel are two small buttons left and right near the center spoke. Move the transmission selector to manual shift mode and you can now control upshifts and downshifts from these buttons, exactly as the world's fastest race car drivers do.

As you drive, an "Airmatic" air suspension system keeps your E55 AMG level, even under hard cornering. Air shocks change pressure to prevent lean, squat or dive.

All the little conveniences we've come to expect in luxury vehicles are present here. The E55 turns on headlights as needed, ditto for windshield wipers. But the headlights are bi-Xenon models that turn with the car as you enter a curve. They are fantastic.

Optional solar panels in the panorama sunroof create power from sunlight and use it to ventilate the car while it's parked. If the sun is intense, you can power up a rear window sunshade.

If your E55 AMG has the Parktronic system, you'll have ultrasonic assistance front and rear as you park. Beeps and flashing lights inform you how close you're coming to a vehicle or obstacle. Rear seat room is plentiful and the E55 AMG can seat five adults. Every imaginable safety feature is standard, including side air bags front and rear and a full-cabin head protection air cushion system. If an accident occurs, the car calls for assistance.

It's difficult to sum up the superiority of the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG in a few words. Its standard equipment-hidden six-stack CD player, air conditioning, intelligent five-speed automatic transmission, and on and on-could fill this review. Many of its special features have been mentioned, setting the bar for others auto makers. But our tester also had a navigation system, voice-operated cell phone, satellite radio, electronic trunk closer, and hands-free communication system with all devices.

For all the awesome power at the command of your right foot, this car is easy to drive slowly around town. It doesn't jerk those inside. Fuel economy of 21 mpg on the highway is better than a wheezy six-cylinder Jeep Wrangler tested not long ago. Bottom line: This E55 is a super-car. It's an executive hot rod, the ultimate car to own if you have more than one friend, and both power and prestige are your desire. The timid can drive it, but only the bold (and skilled) can hope to tame it.

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