A gleaming Mercedes car may be the prized possession of affluent professionals in the United States, but its image, as well as its price, is decidedly more down-market at home. In West Germany, the Mercedes reputation is short on glamor and long on security and sound craftsmanship -- those stolid virtues so closely attuned to the German soul. The people most often found behind the wheel of a Mercedes tend to be taxi drivers and traveling salesmen, not playboys and movie stars. "In Germany the Mercedes is considered a symbol of quality, not luxury," says Hans-Georg Kloos, the public relations chief of Daimler Benz. "When Germans talk about our cars they use terms like safety, comfort, reliability, durability and timeless form."

BMW enjoys a sporty label that has made its 300 range of cars popular among young Germans. Porsche is considered part of the decadent domain of the spoiled rich. Germany's smart set likes to turn to exotic imports -- Jaguar is preferred by the older, modern cosmopolites, Lamborghini by the racy parvenus. But Mercedes is the unpretentious work- horse of the middle class. For Germans, it's a meat-and-potatoes kind of car, forget about caviar, champagne and nouvelle cuisine.

More than half of all Mercedes sold in West Germany are bought as company cars; nearly one in 10 is sold as a taxi. Most Mercedes cars cost between $9,000 and $15,000, taxes and everything included, in West Germany. The public's respect for Mercedes' lasting quality means that it depreciates slowly. Businesses know they can usually get 200,000 miles out of the car; their salesmen know they can comfortably maintain the grueling 120-mile-an-hour pace along the country's manic autobahns.

Mercedes' journeyman tradition has diminished its appeal in the youth market, so to compete against the exuberant BMW, Daimler ame out three years ago with the 190 compact model -- but it failed to catch on. It's almost as if Germans feel fear that a stodgy, but reliable and industrious relative is trying to become a swinger.