Mercedes-Benz Ag's '96 E-class sedan hit U.S. showrooms in November with dramatic exterior restyling, improved powertrain performance, a tighter, tougher suspension and an aggressive price tag for its segment.

But the E-class is not alone in its metamorphosis. In fact, the entire company is debuting this year with a new look and a new business focus that redefines this German automaker and its position in the world vehicle market.

"It was mutually agreed between Daimler Benz AG and all of its sales subsidiaries that the E-class -- not only our core business here (in the U.S.) but around the world -- needed to be innovative from a styling point of view," says Ralph Fischer, product manager E-class for Mercedes Benz North America Inc.

That innovation, Fischer says, is expected to bring new customers to showrooms -- customers who make purchase decisions based on an emotional appeal over a calculated criteria set. But this needed to be accomplished without sacrificing M-B's traditional buyer.

"We don't plan to loose any of our existing customer base," says Mr. Fischer. "What we plan to do is broaden the appeal of the car and be able to attract new customers, in addition to the E-class buyers who have traditionally been 70% male and 50 years old. We think we can attract women who before didn't consider our car because they thought it was too stodgy from a styling point. We think we can attract males that bought BMWs before because they didn't think Mercedes was a performance car or a young enough, hip enough car."

MBNA expects to sell roughly 30,000 E-class sedans a year through 1998. Volume will be closer to 34,000 in the first