DETROIT – Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz premium division is focused on getting attention and keeping it in 2009.

The €750,000 ($1 million) 650-hp carbon-fiber SLR Stirling Moss, sold outside North America, is the head-turner, while the redesigned-for-’10 E-Class sedan offers as standard equipment a feature that gives drowsy drivers a nudge.

The limited-edition SLR – upcoming production models already are spoken-for is the only one on display at the North American International Auto Show here. The E-Class was unveiled briefly to the press before being covered up again to reemerge at the Geneva auto show in March.

The SLR pays tribute to Moss, the British driving legend who piloted an SLR at an average speed of 97.9 mph (158 km/h) to a record finish in Italy’s Mille Miglia in 1955. That standard remains unbeaten and unmatched.

As homage to old-school open-air driving, it is sold with a helmet and goggles because it lacks a windscreen. Low-profile deflectors positioned in front of the two seating positions are designed to channel air around the occupants.

There will be plenty of airflow. Capable of going from 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in less than 3.5 seconds, Mercedes claims this SLR – the last in the series – is the world’s fastest production roadster.

Klaus Maier, executive vice president-sales and marketing, describes the car as an “exclamation point to the SLR era,” which began in 2003 with the debut of the first of five models.

The Stirling Moss edition is particularly striking because of its forward-opening gull-wing doors and dramatic contours that rise sharply from the decklid to form head restraints and provide rollover protection. In lieu of a roof, tonneau covers protect the leather interior from the elements.

At the media’s sneak peek, Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche describes the new E-Class as “the heart of the brand.” The lineup accounted for nearly 39,000 sales in the U.S. last year, second only to the brand’s popular C-Class range, according to Ward’s data.

The new E350 and E550 arrive in the U.S. in July, followed later in the year by models equipped with Mercedes’ second-generation 4Matic all-wheel-drive system and the E63 AMG variant. The E350 Bluetec, which is powered by a turbodiesel V-6 that meets emissions standards in all 50 U.S. states, arrives in 2010.

A 4-cyl. diesel engine that drives the overseas-market E200 features fuel-saving, start-stop technology that turns off the engine at idle but starts it up again just before the driver makes a power demand.

Maier tells Ward’s he would like to see the U.S. market benefit from this technology. “We believe Americans need these technologies,” he says, while conceding consumers face a steep learning curve. He expects there will be doubters, who fear their engines will not restart. But “it’s only a question of time” before the technology arrives.

Mercedes insiders say they are pushing to introduce start-stop as an option in the U.S.

The new E-Class showcases a suite of safety features that includes sensor technology that alerts the driver when he exhibits signs of drowsiness. Branded Attention Assist, the technology monitors throttle and steering inputs. When a pattern develops that is consistent with drowsiness, an alarm is activated. Attention Assist will be standard equipment on the E-Class.

Other safety systems include:

  • Adaptive High-Beam Assist, a camera-based system that adjusts headlamp angle to avoid blinding oncoming motorists.
  • Mercedes’ Pre-Safe impact-mitigation technology that adjusts seats and restraint systems before a crash to ensure occupants are in the optimal position to avoid injury.
  • A lane-departure warning system that vibrates the steering wheel when sensors determine the driver has drifted across his lane.

On the styling front, Mercedes abandons the twin-headlamp face that made its first appearance in 1995. Instead, the E-Class headlamps take on an angular look that the auto maker likens to “precious gems that have been precision-cut from the fenders.”

emayne@wardsauto.com