2003 Car Review: Mercedes-Benz ML500


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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

THE AUTO PAGE By JOHN HEILIG

SPECIFICATIONS

MODEL: Mercedes-Benz ML500

ENGINE: 5.0-liter V8

HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 288 hp @ 5,600 rpm/325 lbs-ft @ 2,700-4,250 rpm

TRANSMISSION: Five-speed automatic with TouchShift manual control

WHEELBASE: 111.0 in.

LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 182.6 x 72.4 x 71.7 in.

STICKER PRICE: $46,520(Base)

I had driven the Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport utility a few times with its original 3.2-liter V6 engine. In this guise, it's a very good sport ute, offering decent power, good on- and off-road manners and, of course, Mercedes-Benz luxury.

This week's tester is the next one up the M-Class scale, the ML500, with a 5.0-liter V8 engine. The luxury's still there, of course. So are the on- and off-road manners. What's different is a whole new ballgame worth of power to go along with slightly less practicality. But on the whole, it's a winner, with a sticker that unfortunately puts it out of my class.

The 5.0-liter V8 develops a healthy 288 horsepower, which was enough for reasonable neck-snapping acceleration. There's a hotter version of the vehicle, as well, the ML55 AMG, with a 5.5-liter AMG-tuned V8 that pumps out 342 horses. I think this might be too much for this type of vehicle, although I'm perfectly willing to make the sacrifice of testing one to prove my point.

Power gets to the wheels (rear or all four) through a five-speed automatic transmission with what Mercedes-Benz calls TouchShift manual control. This is a version of an "automatic stick shift" that permits the driver to shift the transmission sequentially through the gears as if it was a manual, but without a clutch. Quite frankly, we thought there was enough power in the engine, and decent enough response under all the conditions we drove the ML500 to obviate the need for any kind of manual. We tried it a few times, but to me it was just more work for equal, if slightly poorer, performance.

After all, the ML500 is a truck, and you're not going to be driving it on twisty roads at a high rate of speed. The suspension won't handle it. So, therefore, why use a manual gearbox. Off-road performance is excellent, even in deep mud on the side of a hill, even with the automatic, so there's no need there to manually shift.

I'm certain there would be instances where manual operation of the transmission would make sense, but we didn't find it.

Our tester was fitted with two optional third-row seats, increasing passenger capacity to seven. We had only two people in the car most of the time, so we kept the rear seats stowed in the "upright and locked" position. Thus stowed, the seats are hooked to the sides of the vehicle.

But with the seats stowed, carrying capacity is reduced. We used the ML500 for a trip over the rivers and through the woods to our grandchildren's house (actually our daughter's house, but I couldn't resist the similarity). We had Thanksgiving dinner and all the fixings to bring, as well as clothes for a weekend. We still haven't learned to pack lightly, so the ML500 was filled. We could have carried more without the two seats hanging there.

The seats are removable, but we chose to leave them in the vehicle.

We had a problem with the entertainment system. We had an excellent AM/FM radio that has Mercedes-Benz's facility to dial in the station you want by the frequency number. Since we know the stations on the roads we travel, this was a blessing. We didn't have to seek and scan our way through the entire band, nor did we have to set the stations in memory.

But we couldn't find the CD or cassette players, and we had a new CD we wanted to hear. My wife finally decided to open the owner's manual. There's an "open" button on the screen display that's used for navigation, entertainment and systems checks. Pushing this causes the face of the screen to fold forward, revealing the CD and cassette slots. Wonder of wonders.

Cupholders are equally "interesting" to find, but when located they do the job well.

The seats were comfortable, and the heated feature was just the ticket for those cold winter trips. Winter seems to be early this year in our portion of the globe, so heated seats are a blessing for old, stiff backs.

The ML500 comes with a bottom line of $46,015. This includes destination charges, but doesn't include the one-CD navigation system. As one of the "luxury" SUVs, the ML500 certainly fits in, and with a competitive price.

© 2002 The Auto Page Syndicate

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