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The Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUVs deliver rugged looks, safety, room, and utility.
For 2003, there's a new, more powerful base model, the ML350, which replaces the ML320, comes with a larger V6 engine. The ML500 comes with a V8.
Also new for 2003 are a DVD- (rather than CD-) based navigation system, and a special Inspiration Edition with unique interior and exterior trim.
The new ML350 ($36,950) uses a 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 232 horsepower.
ML500 ($45,350) gets a 288-horsepower V8.
ML55 AMG ($65,900) features a hot-rod version of that V8, raising the horsepower to 342.
A new package called the Inspiration Edition ($2540 on ML350, $1200 on ML500) includes sport seats with silver cross-stitched Anthracite leather, dark poplar wood trim, unique floormats, six-spoke 17-inch wheels, and a silver-painted grille.
All M-Class models come standard with dual front airbags that know when to deploy with partial or full force, 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.
The company's Tele Aid emergency calling system is also standard equipment, along with a downhill traction-control system that features a crawl mode for slow descents on steep icy streets, or even off-road. Also standard on all M-Class models for 2003 is an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which corrects slides and is invaluable; it works with Brake Assist, which activates the pedal with full force when sensors say it's needed.
The Mercedes-Benz ML500 provided a ride that was smooth, steady, firm and never jarring. The handling is extremely good for an SUV this heavy, though it bobs like a pogo stick when cornering hard. The M-Class responds to aggressive steering commands without fuss, and the beefy tires are grippy. Still, a driver can feel the truck's weight if he or she yanks the steering wheel, and the M-Class 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 was revised last year, for a more rapid response. The M-Class rides on a double-wishbone, four-wheel independent suspension, and its front anti-roll bar was made larger last year.
The biggest problem with the ML 500's handling might be the inconvenience of the heavy steering. At slower speeds the steering effort is very high, making it hard to steer in crowded parking lots. You might even find yourself turning wider than you intended to, because you didn't muscle it enough. It's possible to beat the power steering pump by turning the wheel real fast at low speeds, especially under braking.
With its V8 engine, the ML500 accelerates from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds. This puts it among the quickest SUVs on the market, as well as one of the thirstiest, at just 14/17 mpg in the EPA's city/highway cycle.
The flexibility of the 5.0-liter engine is impressive, with its broad torque range and whomping 325 pounds-feet. 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. The transmission 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. The transmission learns the driver's style in the Auto mode, though if you jump on it then back off to, say, make a lane change, it will downshift then hold it in the lower gear longer than you want.
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. Unlike a Land Rover, however, the Mercedes traction-control system can leave the M-Class sidelined when the grip goes away completely.
The ML500 performs so well, and its ride and handling are 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 quick, but that will cost you another 21 grand. The engine is poked out to 5.5 liters, yielding 342 horsepower and a humongous 376 pounds-feet of torque. We drove an ML55, pushing it harder, because it will be driven very aggr
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a fine line of SUVs. 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 RX 330, 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.
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