1999 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Balance is Expensive.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class has been selling faster than expected since the company's new factory in Alabama came on line in late 1997. Perhaps that's because the M-Class is the Mercedes of sport-utility vehicles. More likely, it's because the M-Class delivers an excellent balance of the rugged looks, room, security and utility that SUV buyers seek.
There are 4X4 trucks with more ground clearance and better rugged-terrain tires than the M-Class. Yet on streets and highways, where most SUV owners spend most of their driving time, those 4x4s behave like trucks. There are also sport-utilities -- notably the Lexus RS 300 -- that are even more car-like than the M-Class on pavement. But the RX 300, with its sedan-derived mechanical components, has limited off-road capability. Part of the SUV's appeal is the liberating thought that one could leave the highway and head into the bush without a moment's notice, whether or not one actually does so. The M-Class has been successful because it's good in just about every role an SUV is asked to perform.
For 1999, alongside the original V6-powered ML320, Mercedes has introduced an ML430 with a 268-horsepower, overhead-cam V8. The ML430 adds more luxury appointments and Mercedes' sophisticated electronic anti-skid system as standard equipment. Better still, M-Class supply may finally be catching up with demand. That could leave more room to dicker at the dealership.
Mercedes built its factory in Alabama exclusively for M-Class production, but so far the plant hasn't been able to keep up with demand. The company is now increasing the plant's capacity 25 percent, and it will build another 30,000 M-Class trucks at a factory in Austria.
The first Mercedes assembled on American soil was designed in its own image. There's more than a hint of minivan in its styling, inside and out. The M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood, rather than the billiard-table hood seen on many trucks and SUVs.
Still, the M-Class has traditional body-on-frame construction. While a separate body bolted to the frame is heavier and more prone to squeaks than the unibody construction found in most sedans and minivans, it's also very durable, better suited for towing and preferred by many truck buyers.
There's more than a V8 engine to distinguish the $44,345 ML430 from the $35,545 ML320. The 430 has body-colored bumpers, rocker panels and moldings, and it's fitted with 17-inch wheels and meatier all-season tires. Mercedes' ESP skid control system comes standard with the V8, and it's more than a gimmick. This computer-controlled system helps manage understeer (pushing at the front of the car) or oversteer (a loose rear end), particularly on dirt, gravel or slippery pavement. In such conditions, ESP applies brakes to individual wheels to help turn the vehicle evenly. It can buy precious fractions of a second in emergency situations.
The M-Class may also have the most extensive array of safety equipment available in an SUV, including dual front airbags, side-impact airbags that deploy from the front seats, seatbelt pretensioners and automatic belt force limiters. A child-seat recognition system prevents deployment of the front passenger airbags when an appropriate child safety seat is installed.
With Mercedes' decision to build a plant in Alabama came the realization that the company would have to cut production costs to continue prospering. In the M-Class, longtime Mercedes owners might notice this new thinking in several ways.
The seat controls are mounted on the seat bottom, rather than in a seat-shaped pattern on the door. The driver's seat can't be moved unless the ignition is on, so a tall driver must reach in and turn the key before moving the seat back. The ML430 has a conventional steel key, rather than the electronic type used in expensive Mercedes sedans, and it lacks separate temperature adjustment for each side of the forward cabin.
Still, other familiar Mercedes-Benz touches are obvious in the M-Class. The seats are wide, yet supportive, with thick, sturdy leather upholstery and more than enough bolstering for SUV driving. There's a traditional Mercedes look to the gauges, with two trip odometers and an ambient thermometer inside the speedometer. With the ML430 come buttons that memorize front seat positions and dark, glossy wood trim.
The M-Class follows the Mercedes tradition of placing two control stalks on the left side of the steering wheel: one for wipers and turn signals and the other for cruise control functions. Mercedes obviously thinks this is proper switch placement, yet it's very easy to hit the cruise stalk when you want to turn on a blinker, even after you're familiar with the distinction. Otherwise, the controls are easy to locate, and they work a with soft, satisfying click. Darker interior colors do better than light when it comes to giving the plastic and vinyl panels a Mercedes-grade appearance.
The M-Class's door sills sit only 18 inches above the ground. That's low step-in height by SUV standards, but the driver still sits tall above the pavement. The high seats, expansive glass, effective mirrors and fall-away hood combine for great visibility in all directions and a secure, confident feeling at the wheel.
The ML430's rear seat is one of the best in the sport-utility business. It's actually three individual buckets that can be folded separately to maximize passenger or cargo space. The seat bottoms are wide and supportive, and the seats slide about five inches fore and aft, increasing either legroom or cargo space.
With maximum capacity of 85.4 cubic feet, the M-Class has more cargo volume than some compact sport-utilities. But it has considerably less than full-size luxury models such as the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade. The ML430's payback when compared to those competitors is more maneuverability and better on-road performance.
Step on the gas and the ML430 roars--a loud, deep, unbridled roar, not necessarily characteristic of a Mercedes sedan, but right at home in this all-purpose vehicle. With the noise comes action. From a stop, 60 miles per hour comes in 8 seconds flat, making the ML430 one of the quickest SUVs you can buy.
Even more impressive is the V8's flexibility. It's matched with a sophisticated five-speed automatic, and while you'll find similar transmissions in luxury sedans, you won't find one in another SUV. Slam the accelerator at any speed: In a heartbeat the transmission downshifts and the 2.25-ton ML430 gains even velocity, making quick, stress-free work of passing tractor trailers on two-lane roads.
Longtime Mercedes drivers will feel a familiar dead spot in the steering when the wheel is centered. Turn the wheel left or right, however, and the tactile sensation (what enthusiast drivers call feedback) builds quickly and evenly. Sedan-style four-wheel independent suspension gives the ML430 an impressively smooth ride and handling that's quite good for a heavy SUV.
A driver can feel the M-Class's weight if he or she yanks the steering wheel in sharp, rapid swoops -- the ML43O can lean heavily in emergency lane change maneuvers, for example. Yet it's prone to neither excessive pushing at the front end nor jittery slides in the rear. Hold your breath a second and it bites down and follows aggressive steering commands without much fuss. The wide, all-season tires are surprisingly grippy on dry asphalt, and stopping power is impressive. The brake pedal has a slightly spongy feel, but in full-panic stops the ML430 slows faster than almost any SUV in production.
The M-Class lacks a hand brake or locking differentials -- tools experienced off-road drivers sometimes rely on. Yet with 8.4 inches of ground clearance, it's capable of traversing terrain that few SUV buyers are likely to challenge. The low four-wheel-drive range allows the ML430 to creep up and down seriously steep inclines, while electronic power distribution delivers grip on both soft, sloppy earth or hard, rocky, uneven ground. The electronics apply the brakes on wheels that are slipping, and then send most of the power to those that are gripping. The M-Class can creep forward even if only one wheel has a bit of traction.
Think of it this way: There aren't many vehicles that can carry five passengers to a chic restaurant downtown, or up the hill to a hideaway in the woods, with the same degree of comfort, luxury and style. Granted, that potential is expensive. With a few options, the ML430 we tested cost nearly $47,000. Not long ago, paying that kind of money for a 'truck' was almost unheard of.
Mercedes officials admit that early copies of the M-Class were shipped with too many quality glitches. Some had misaligned rear hatches, and others remote key fobs that didn't work. But these problems didn't stop the buyers, and recent M-Class vehicles, including our test model, suggest the little glitches are a thing of the past. And Mercedes' traditionally strong resale value should help the M-Class hold its value in the used-car market.
Sport-utility vehicles comprise one of the most crowded, competitive segments of the automobile market, and each of those SUVs have different strengths. You can find luxury sport-utilities that are roomier, more powerful or a bit more capable than the ML430 in seriously challenging terrain. But you won't find one that does as many things as well as the M-Class.
Options As Tested
Bose audio system with 6-CD changer ($1,050), glass sunroof ($1,095), metallic paint ($475).
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