2002 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
MSRP
$36,300 - $65,900

Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

It's not cheap, but it's arguably the best.

Introduction

Mercedes-Benz covers a wide spectrum with its M-Class sport-utilities. The ML320 delivers the rugged looks, room, safety and utility that high-end SUV buyers seek along with a V6 engine that keeps pricing down to earthly levels. The ML500 offers all that, plus considerably more oomph from its V8 engine. And the ML55 AMG hammers you with high performance. 

New for 2002, the 5.0-liter ML500, our test vehicle, replaces last year's 4.3-liter ML430. 

Lineup

The ML320 uses a 215-horsepower V6 engine and its base price is $36,300; the ML500 takes a 288-horsepower V8 and costs $44,950; and the ML55 AMG features a hot-rodded version of that V8, raising the horsepower to 342 and the cost to $65,900. (All prices are MSRP and do not include the $645 destination charge.) Some things that were standard on the M-Class in 2001 become optional in 2002, effectively raising the price. 

M-Class models still come standard with dual front airbags that know when to deploy with partial or full force, front and rear side airbags, window curtain airbags that drop from the headliner, as well as seatbelt pretensioners and automatic seatbelt force limiters. A child-seat recognition system prevents deployment of the front passenger airbags when an appropriate child safety seat is installed. Beginning last year, the company's Tele Aid emergency calling system was standard equipment, along with new downhill traction control having a crawl mode for slow descents on steep icy streets, or even off-road. The ML500 and ML55 come standard with ESP, Electronic Stability Program, which corrects slides and is invaluable; it works with Brake Assist, which activates the pedal with full force when sensors say it's needed. 

Walkaround

The M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood. Its styling has been freshened for 2002, including a new grille, new wheels on the ML320 and ML500, tighter-fitting bumpers, halogen headlamps with projected beams, halogen foglamps, revised taillamp lenses with a single rear foglamp integrated in the left taillamp, and side mirrors now containing the side turn signals. 

The M-Class uses a 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 and better suited for towing, preferred by many truck buyers. 

Interior

The interior also got a makeover for 2002. It retains its leather and burl walnut trim, but the center console, rear console and instrument cluster have all been cleaned up and made simpler to view and use, including the addition of a covered storage area with 32-ounce cupholder. The gauges are very clean. Overall, the controls are easy to locate, and they work with a soft, satisfying click. 

A fully automatic and filtered climate control system is now standard, using an air conditioning compressor with much larger capacity, and six temperature sensors in the cabin to provide efficient and accurate air temperature and flow. Theoretically, that is. We suspect there's some German over-engineering here; for example, in automatic mode, the blower speed is determined by, among other things, a photo diode that registers sunlight on the dash. The default temperature setting is 72 degrees. To change it, refer to your 320-page hardcover owner's manual. 

But you don't have to use automatic. There are three big new dials to play with. They're quite conspicuous and entertaining, with circumference rings to adjust fan speed, temperature and air direction, and a little red LED light indicator that moves around the outside. However they lack separate settings for each side of the forward cabin. The new rear console (with two cupholders) allows passengers to set the air speed and direction, but not temperature. It too has an automatic setting, meaning sunlight on the dash affects blower speed in the back seat. High technology at work. 

There's a traditional Mercedes look to the white-on-black gauges, which turn ivory-on-black when lit at night. The digital clock is intelligently located where it can be easily read inside the tachometer, and an ambient thermometer is located inside the speedometer, although we believe a compass located there would be more useful. The compass is on the overhead console, one of six functions on the trip computer, along with date, present and average fuel consumption, miles to empty, and a stop watch. The cupholders that fold out of the dash on each end are the best. 

We had a couple small problems with the function of the instrumentation and controls, however. Surprisingly, given Mercedes' focus on safety, there is no warning light when a door is ajar (also true of some of the company's sedans). And when our ML500 arrived, the interior lights were totally turned off, which we discovered in the dark and couldn't remedy in the dark. Even with the door opened, the only light we could get was out of the glovebox. We never did solve it. It may have been a blown fuse. 

The cruise control stalk is often criticized on Mercedes vehicles for being located above the turn signal stalk, set with an upward push. So during a right turn, your left hand flips the turn signal up, you turn the steering wheel, and if your fingers stayed extended a moment too long, you bump the cruise control stalk and set it, often without realizing it. It happened to us once, and we never knew it until we backed off for a stop sign, and the throttle stayed on. 

The Modular Control System consists of the sound and navigation systems, both displayed on a console screen. The on-off/volume button is so small it will be very difficult to grip with gloves, in winter. There's another small button for tuning both radio and navigation, which works like a teensy joystick. You can preset 10 radio channels from a keyboard, although if you have that many favorite radio stations you need a life. 

We're not sure if the Bose premium sound system is worth $1200, that's an individual thing, but we are sure that the sound quality is really great. One problem, though, is that because the navigation system takes a CD, you can't listen to CD music and be navigated at the same time (although you can listen to the radio). On long trips, you have to choose; switching CDs is cumbersome, with the slot located behind the navigation/radio screen. But at leas. 

Driving Impression

With its bigger engine, the ML500 accelerates more quickly than last year's ML430: 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds versus 8.0 seconds. This makes it one of the quickest SUVs on the market, as well as one of the thirstiest; the downside is fuel mileage, as the ML430 got 16 city and 20 highway, while the ML500 gets only 14/17. The front and rear axle ratios have been changed from 3.46 to 3.70, improving acceleration but reducing fuel mileage. So the ML320 and ML500 also get a bigger fuel tank, to 22 gallons from 18.5. 

The flexibility of the 5.0-liter engine is impressive, with its broad torque range and whomping 325 foot-pounds. It works beautifully with the sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission. Floor the accelerator at any speed, and in a heartbeat the transmission downshifts and this 2.25-ton luxury truck gains speed, making quick, stress-free work of passing tractor trailers on two-lane roads; it downshifts so smoothly all you feel is a surge of power, as if a turbocharger were kicking in. 

Even better, there's the joy of Touch Shift, which allows manual shifting by nudging the lever to the left or right, with the gear displayed on the instrument panel. There's a new transmission feature in 2002, called SOG, or Shift Optimized Gear function. As we understand it, SOG overrides Touch Shift when in the Touch Shift mode, reverting the transmission back to automatic if the driver's choice of gears doesn't please the program. We think an entire column might be written about this, which may or may not be funny. (It would only be funny to you, Sam. -ed.)

The front stabilizer bars have been made bigger on the 2002 M-Class, which features a double-wishbone, four-wheel independent suspension. Our ML500 provided a ride that was smooth, steady, firm and never jarring. The handling is extremely good for an SUV this heavy; it follows aggressive steering commands without fuss, and the beefy tires are grippy. A driver can feel the weight if he or she yanks the steering wheel, however, and it will lean some in emergency lane change maneuvers, but it's prone neither to pushing at the front end (understeer) nor sliding at the rear (oversteer). Of course, the magical Electronic Stability Program controls this loss of traction during cornering, particularly on dirt, gravel or slippery pavement. ESP applies brakes to individual wheels to help turn the vehicle evenly whenever it detects a skid. It too has been revised in 2002, to give a more rapid response. 

The biggest problem with the handling might be the inconvenience of the heavy steering. At slower speeds the steering effort is very high, and women may not like this. You might even find yourself turning wider than you intended to, because you didn't muscle it enough. A weak-shouldered driver will have to watch it as they turn into a shopping-center parking space. 

The anti-lock brakes, with massive discs, ventilated in front, are impressive, and the pedal feel is as solid as the rest of the truck. The ML500 slows quicker than almost any other SUV made. 

The M-Class lacks a hand brake or locking differential, two pieces of hardware that experienced off-road drivers sometimes rely on. But with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the M-Class is capable of traversing terrain that few SUV buyers are likely to challenge. A switch on the dash triggers low range for the full-time four-wheel-drive, allowing the vehicle to creep up and down seriously steep inclines. Meanwhile, the electronic power distribution delivers grip in mud, snow, or 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. 

The ML500 performs so well, its ride and handling so solid, that only the wealthiest, hard-core, high-performance buyers will feel a need for the image-heavy ML55 AMG. It can accelerate from a standstill to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. That's q. 

Summary

While some 4X4s offer chunkier tires and greater ground clearance than the M-Class, and may be more capable off-road, they behave more 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. Still others are bigger and more luxurious. But it's very difficult to find one that does as many things as well as the M-Class. 

Model Lineup

ML320 ($36,300); ML500 ($44,950); ML55 ($65,900). 

Assembled In

Vance, Alabama. 

Options As Tested

Convenience package, including memory front seats, rain sensing wipers and power folding mirrors ($800); Sunroof package, including glass sunroof and power rear quarter-windows ($1295); Bose premium sound system with CD changer ($1200). 

Model Tested

ML500 ($44,950). 

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