Let's start from the back: It's been Ward's practice to start out a new year with long-term evaluations of two of our Ten Best Engines winners. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. provided a 1999 Maxima, packing the marvelous VQ 3L DOHC V-6, an engine we'd been itching to long-term test. And Mercedes-Benz graciously agreed to let us have a yearlong look at its first-ever 6-cyl. engine that isn't an inline unit. Problem was, we'd requested an M-Class sport/utility vehicle (SUV) in which to test Mercedes' 3.2L SOHC V-6. But paying customers simply wouldn't let Mercedes free up a '98 M-Class, so we waited for a fresh-off-the-shelf '99 ML320.

The potent Mercedes 3.2L V-6 is available in a number of models, but we were ardent about requesting an M-Class in which to test it in order to coincidentally audit some anecdotal industry scuttlebutt that the U.S.-built M-Class isn't up to Mercedes' common standard of reliability and build quality. To its credit, Mercedes was happy to meet the challenge, knowing WAW plans to compress the equivalent of roughly four years of ownership into a single year of evaluation.

Readers who follow our annual Ten Best Engines awards will remember the Mercedes V-6 won an enthusiastic spot on the Best Engines list in its first year of eligibility. This 215-hp, 229 ft.-lbs. (310 Nm), 90-degree V-6 shares its basic "modular" structure and a goodly number of its components with a SOHC V-8 engine family; thus the 90-degree design.

There are two standout features: first, the V-6 "regresses" to a highly efficient SOHC, three-valve layout from today's accepted new-engine norm of DOHC and fourvalves per cylinder. Mercedes claims the design proffers demonstrable emissions reduction with no performance loss. Similar advantages come from a concordant use of dual-sparkplug ignition.

At press time, the '99 ML320 had just been delivered, so there's nothing yet to report - except that a two-month signup sheet for the M-Class was completely filled 10 minutes after it was posted.

Meanwhile, the fact that we've taken down almost 24,000 miles (38,600 km) in just six months with the Nissan Maxima SE and its potent Nissan 3L VQ is telling enough. Thanks to the sparkling VQ V-6 and a lively, rewarding chassis, the Maxima whisks someone home every day.

Best of all, nothing has sullied the experience. The VQ seems more willing by the day and the Maxima appears to reside at the apogee of the renowned Japanese quality/reliability curve: Not a thing has gone wrong with the engine or the drivetrain, and nothing (we mean nothing!) has required even a minor adjustment. And two routine servicing have set us back just $114.

Oh. Factor in 26 mpg (9L/100 km) for this tragically underappreciated sport sedan.

Reliable, inexpensive to operate and a scintillating V-6 engine. Folks, it don't get any better. - Bill Visnic