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The Mercedes-Benz M-Class delivers rugged looks, fine on-road performance, room and utility, with traditional Mercedes design and engineering. The M-Class is available with either a powerful V6 engine or a really powerful V8. Rather than the sedan-style unibody construction used by many of the new-generation SUVs, the M-Class has a separate body on a reinforced frame. It has far more off-road capability than the typical SUV owner will ever use, and it can tow 5,000 pounds.
Moreover, the M-Class has the safe, solid, bank-vault feel that has been a Mercedes hallmark almost since the beginning of automotive time. It comes loaded with the latest safety technology, and more standard airbags than some high-end luxury sedans. Of course, you'll pay a premium for these Mercedes values. You could buy a comparably sized, equally powerful luxury SUV from Acura, Lexus or Volvo with more equipment for less money. However, to millions around the world, the Mercedes brand and values are worth every penny.
The current M-Class is much more refined than it was when it was first introduced. The M-Class got a facelift for 2002 and a more powerful base engine in 2003, so there isn't much changed for 2004. The ML55 AMG, which was once the pavement-burning performance leader of all SUVS, has been eliminated. The DVD-based, satellite-guided navigation system introduced last year on the up-level ML500 is now available in the ML350.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood. The styling was freshened for 2002 with a new grille, new wheel designs, tighter-fitting bumpers, halogen headlamps with projected beams, halogen foglamps, revised taillight lenses with a single rear fog lamp integrated in the left taillight, and turn signals integrated into the side mirrors.
M-Class SUVs are built with the traditional body-on-frame construction used for trucks. Though heavier and more prone to squeaks than the unibody construction found in most sedans, minivans and an increasing number of SUVs, the body-on-frame design is considered more durable and better suited for towing, and is therefore preferred by many truck buyers. Some initial M-Class build problems, suffered as Mercedes launched its United States assembly plant in Vance, Alabama, are long since history.
The ML500 is distinguished from the ML350 by the chrome trim on its grille and door handles. We like the Appearance Package ($3,350), which adds aggressive lower body cladding and more stylish wheels, but it isn't cheap, is it?
The 2004 ML350 feels like an upscale product. The quality of the interior materials is much higher than it was in the previous ML320 models. 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 in the console. Overall, the controls are easy to locate, and they work with a soft, satisfying click. The ML500 comes with Mercedes' familiar leather and burl walnut trim, updated with a significant interior makeover two years ago.
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 read easily; an ambient thermometer is located inside the speedometer, although we believe a compass 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 from each end of the dash 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 because it's located above the turn signal stalk, and it sets with an upward push. With this design, you can inadvertently set the cruise control when you meant to hit the blinker. During a right turn, for example, your left hand flips the turn signal up and then you turn the wheel. And if your fingers stay extended a second 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 the throttle stayed on when we backed off the gas for a stop sign.
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 measures sunlight on the dashboard. The default temperature setting is 72 degrees. To change it, refer to your 320-page hardcover owner's manual.
You don't have to use the automatic mode, however. There are three big dials to adjust manually. Rings around the circumference of the dials are used to set fan speed, temperature and air direction, but 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 flow direction, but not temperature. The rear seat has an automatic setting, too, meaning sunlight on the dash affects blower speed in the back seat. That's high technology at work.
Mercedes' Modular Control System includes the audio controls, and those for the navigation system if the vehicle has it, displayed on a console screen. The on-off/volume button is so small it will be difficult to grip with gloves in winter. There's another small button for both tuning the radio and setting the navigation, which works like a teensy joystick. You can preset 10 radio channels from a keyboard, but 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.
There are four power ports in the cabin, front and rear. There are 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.
The seats are firm and relatively flat. W
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class feels smooth and firm and powerful, though it lacks some of the smoothness and agility of some of the car-based SUVs. The ML350 delivers plenty of power from its 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 232 horsepower. It offers more response than the previous ML320. The V6 earns a 15/18 mpg EPA City/Highway rating, just 1 mpg better than the V8.
The ML500 is quicker. With its 5.0-liter V8 engine, the ML500 accelerates from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds, which is quite respectable. Top speed is limited to 121 mph, to match the speed rating of the tires. However, the ML500 is thirsty, with just 14/17 mpg in the EPA's city/highway cycle. That's no better than some much larger full-sized SUVs like the Toyota Sequoia.
The flexibility of the ML500's 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 may hold the lower gear longer than you want.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class vehicles ride smooth and steady, firm but seldom jarring. The handling is good for an SUV this heavy, though it bobs significantly 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 in emergency lane-change maneuvers. Charge into a corner at the limits of the tires and the M-Class will go into a predictable four-wheel drift. 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 recently revised for a more rapid response.
The steering seems a bit heavy. At slower speeds the steering effort is high, which can make it a bit of a chore in crowded parking lots. You might find yourself turning wider than you intended to because you didn't muscle it enough.
The anti-lock brakes, with massive discs, are impressive, and the pedal feel is as solid as the rest of the truck. The ML500 stops 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, it's 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 on 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, as on a flat piece of sheer ice. In that case you'll have to switch the traction control off and let the wheels spin to gain a little momentum.
The ML500 performs so well, and its ride and
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 like a car than the M-Class on pavement. But they offer limited off-road capability. Other SUVs are bigger and more luxurious. But it's difficult to find one that does as many things as well as the M-Class. Nor do many offer safety technology that's as sophisticated or complete.
You'll pay a bit more for an M-Class than you will for some comparably equipped luxury SUVs, but for many there is no substitute for the Mercedes Tri-star.
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