2000 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Balance is expensive.
The M-Class is the Mercedes-Benz of sport-utility vehicles. It delivers an excellent balance of the rugged looks, room, security and utility that SUV buyers seek.
Some 4X4 trucks offer rugged-terrain tires and greater ground clearance than the M-Class, but they behave like trucks on the highway. Other sport-utilities, such as the Lexus RS 300, feel more car-like than the M-Class on pavement, but offer limited off-road capability.
Three models are available: $35,300 ML320, $43,750 ML430 and $64,900 ML55. The ML320 comes with a 3.2-liter V6, while the ML430 comes with a 268-horsepower overhead-cam 4.3-liter V8. The limited-production ML55 AMG comes with a 342-horsepower 5.5-liter V8.
The M-Class comes standard with 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.
Inside and out, there's more than a hint of minivan in the styling of the M-Class. The M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood.
Still, the M-Class has traditional body-on-frame construction. Though heavier and more prone to squeaks than the unibody construction found in most sedans and minivans, this design is durable, better suited for towing and preferred by many truck buyers.
For 2000, ML320 and other M-Class models come with body-colored bumpers, rocker panels and moldings. ML320 and ML430 are distinguished by their wheel designs; ML430 gets 17-inch wheels and tires.
Mercedes has tried to minimize production costs in the M-Class and longtime Mercedes owners might notice this 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 controls 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 with a 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 offers 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.
For 2000, Mercedes has upgraded the M-Class interior. A leather steering wheel and gearshift knob come standard and the interior is trimmed in real burl walnut. ML320 features new upholstery styling and seatback covers with map pockets in the back of the front seats. Footwell lights were added.
Step on the gas and the ML430 roars. It's a loud, deep, unbridled roar that's not 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. (Mercedes claims ML55 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds and is capable of a top speed of nearly 150 mph.)
Even more impressive is the 4.3-liter 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 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. In parking lots, steering effort is relatively high, meaning you'll have to use a little elbow grease when parking.
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.
Mercedes' ESP skid control system, standard with the V8, helps manage understeer (pushing at the front of the car) or oversteer (a loose rear end), particularly on dirt, gravel or slippery pavement. ESP applies brakes to individual wheels to help turn the vehicle evenly whenever it detects a skid.
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. This doesn't come cheap, of course. 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.
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 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.
ML320 ($35,300); ML430 ($43,750); ML55 ($64,900).
Options As Tested
Bose audio system with 6-CD changer ($1,050); glass sunroof ($1,095), metallic paint ($475).
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