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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 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood. Its styling was freshened last year, with a new grille, new wheels, 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 incorporating turn signals.
M-Class is built with traditional body-on-frame construction used for trucks. 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, and is preferred by many truck buyers.
The Mercedes M-Class comes with leather and burl walnut trim. The interior got a makeover for 2002. The center console, rear console and instrument cluster were all cleaned up and made simpler to view and use. Mercedes added a covered storage area with a 32-ounce cupholder. The gauges are very clean. Overall, the controls are easy to locate, and they work with a soft, satisfying click.
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 inside the tachometer, where it can be easily read; 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.
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). 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 fully automatic and filtered climate control system uses a large-capacity air conditioning compressor under the hood 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 dashboard. 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 the automatic mode. There are three big well-designed dials to adjust manually. Rings around the circumference of the dials are used 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 rear console (with two cupholders) allows back-seat passengers to set their own 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. That's high technology at work.
The Modular Control System includes 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. There's a learning curve to mastering the system. We've never figured out how to run the navigation system without the radio stepping in uninvited, for example. The compass and trip computer display are above the mirror and hard to read.
There are no less than four power ports in the cabin, front and rear. There are good storage compartments all over, though we couldn't find a good place for toll change. We like the grab handles over each of the four doors, although climbing out isn't very difficult, as the door sills sit only 18 inches above the ground. That's a low step-in height by SUV standards.
Parktronic ($1015) is an excellent feature. The system beeps as you're backing up, indicating how close you are to an object.
The seats are supportive and comfortable, with thick, sturdy leather upholstery and enough bolstering for most SUV driving, although not enough for th
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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