SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
The Guy in the Toyota Land Cruiser nearly twisted his neck. There he was sitting in his SUV pointing excitedly in my direction. His girlfriend seemed equally interested and then it dawned on me. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with what I was driving, namely the new American built Mercedes four wheel drive sports utility vehicle. Must admit, he was not the first and certainly not the last car nut who found the new off-road Merc fascinating.
But, as always, maybe I should start at the beginning, because European Bureau Chiefs by definition spend a great deal of time in Europe I missed the US launch of the ML320 which was attended on behalf of TACH by none other than our head honcho-well, one of two anyway-Marc Rauch. He flew to Portland and after a day or two of driving both on and off road pronounced the new Merc excellent.
I did not, for one minute doubt his judgement but decided to do one better. Firstly, I decided that the proof of the pudding had to be in the eating, consequently a fully laden trip to Mammoth Mountains in California mid-winter was going to be a truer test of what was heralded as the maiden's prayer for the automobile fraternity of the world.
First we had some bad news. As we had every intention of putting four pairs of skis on top we had to have a roof-rack. There were of course two bars on the roof but the extra bits needed for the skis were missing and even our friends at Any Mountain-that excellent specialist shop in Corte Madera could not help as the vehicle was too new. Never mind, this was going to be a challenge and we were going to solve it one way or another. Help came from a most unexpected source. My lovely wife suggested a company called Big 4 Rent. Off I went to Paradise Drive. First reaction-maybe she was joking. There were cement mixers, drills, cleaners of all shapes and sizes. Roof racks? Surely not! I was WRONG! An extremely helpful young man called John came out to the car, looked at the roof and suggested some magnets. The plot was quite simple. One had to clean the roof and attach the two magnets, one behind the other. (Always on metal, by the way, never on glass.) Luckily the Mercedes had a big enough metal section behind the glass sliding roof and hey presto-we were off. To be on the safe side we also attached a couple of bungee cords and it worked like a dream. So much so that we bought the magnets after the trip. One small caveat-unless you are surrounded by thousands of close, personal friends do not leave them on the roof as they tend to walk..these gadgets will fit any car.
So, having got that organized we looked for a worthy opponent. After all Mercedes were trumpeting the new car as a world-beater so we thought, well, let's see how it would fare against the toughest cookie of them all-namely, the Mitsubishi Montero.
I don't know how many TACH readers have been to Dakar in Senegal. This lovely city is the final destination of the Paris-Dakar rally, a grueling endurance test, a 5000 mile torture chamber of all things mechanical.
Having been there three times during the rally I think I can safely say that the Montero is one tough truck. The way it managed to excavate itself from the sand dunes and get to the Senegalese capital was truly breath taking. We all watched, full of admiration, especially as several deadly rivals were left floundering in the desert. Probably still there by the way because short of a Chinook helicopter it would be impossible to remove them. As I am writing this report the 1998 Paris-Dakar rally just took off from the French capital. In the lead after Day One-4 Monteros.
In view of all this the new Mercedes was certainly going to have its work cut out. Three hundred odd miles each way, some of it on highways, some on winding country roads round Lake Tahoe and the last 100 in snow storms on Rt 395 was not going to be a picnic. Credit where credit is due-both "Ms" made it in great style.
I was in charge of the Mercedes on the way there. Initial impressions were by and large favorable with some reservations. There was too much plastic in the car compared to other Mercs. There were bits which would have been more at home in East German Trabants but mercifully none of these had anything to do with mechanical parts all of which functioned perfectly. Well, if we exclude the windscreen washer which froze solid at the front whilst working fine at the back. The main instruments are great, the rest of the switches are a mess. Big mess. Some of them are visible others are not without looking down. Not just down at the dash but down-down between the two front seats. For a company renowned for its pioneering work on safety, I found this astonishing I have been campaigning-without success-to-persuade this fine automaker to own up to their silliest on-going mistake, namely the switch controlling the side-view mirrors. This has to be the worst switch of its kind. A nail-breaker, a badly positioned piece of bad design which would have been a disgrace in a Wartburg, former pride of the East German auto industry. After the superb Xenon headlights of the new Mercedes saloons I found the ones on the SUV disappointing. There are no headlamp washers either, a sad omission. We could not come to terms with the demisting system which left a great deal to be desired although in fairness, I must mention that the temperature gauge at the time stood on 2 degrees..Fahrenheit!
Let's get all the complaints out of the way. The 320 is a bit gutless when fully laden. It is perfectly satisfactory for everyday use, for shopping, for trips to the beach, for visiting the mother-in-law. It will, naturally get you up the mountains as well-eventually. Unless you have taken lots of brave pills, don't rely on the engine to propel you past slower traffic rapidly because it won't. It will of course do 90 mph plus but you will need the patience of a Saint. Unless you are desperate to beat the Joneses wait for the 4.3 V8 due in about a year's time. This is why it is so sad that a well-known American magazine should have published a huge-and paid for-color supplement about the 320 in which their biggest beef was the cup-holder! The 320 does not need such a blatant advetorial, it is quite capable of holding its own without such paid for, sycophantic drivel.
Let's look at the plus side.
First of all there is the undeniable snob value. The bonnet/hood sports a three pointed star the size of a watermelon and the styling is very clever. This is the only SUV in the world which does not look like one. The handling is outstanding. I have driven "normal" cars which were vastly inferior. The giant 255/65 Dunlops provided outstanding grip throughout the journey with one exception. The ground clearance was exceptionally good-top marks.
Whilst traction was truly outstanding we did get caught out on one occasion. The grooves of the tyres filled with snow and there was a total lack of grip. Luckily it was only a brief fright but it did serve as a warning even in a SUV as excellent as the 320 safety and security cannot be taken for granted, under exceptional circumstances even the Mercedes is just another vehicle. After all sheet ice is sheet ice.. and there was plenty of it in Mammoth over the holidays. The price of the car at just under 34 thousand dollars is almost exactly the same as that of the Montero but with various extras it quickly climbs to just under 40.
I would certainly pay a premium for the brilliant Bose music system with the 6-disc CD changer but I am not sure that the glass sunroof is worth an extra 1000 dollars.
The lockable safe under the front passenger's seat is a great idea and should help prevent snatched purses, handbags, cameras or documents. Thieves will of course read road tests and probably drive the 320 as well but the fact remains that it is one thing to snatch a handbag through an open window and it is a very different proposition to snatch it from a locked box. I think Mercedes deserves a very big well done for this feature, one which other manufacturers should copy at once if not sooner.
All in all an excellent car with-for my taste-too many bits of plastic and an engine which could do with a few more ponies. With the 1998 Winter Olympics coming up in Nagano shortly and with figure skating featuring high, I think that the marks for technical merit should be 5.9 and the execution-bearing in mind the amount of plastic a 5.8. I am sure that with the 4.3 litre engine we can look forward to a 6.0 with a triple Salchow and a toe loop.
As for the Montero, well, it will certainly not win too many prizes at a beauty contest but then it was not built for that purpose.
You don't win rallies by looking pretty, you win by building exceedingly strong vehicles. Certainly the Montero took Rt 395 into its stride even though snow storms can be just as unpleasant as sand storms. The 200 horsepower engine was fine but just like the Mercedes it could have done with a few more ponies when it came to overtaking. It offered more seating than the Merc, at one time there were seven of us traveling in it relatively comfortably. On the highway it cruised perfectly happily in two wheel drive mode which was one of the reasons for the perfectly respectable 18.2 miles per gallon figure. In the mountains we did of course engage four wheel drive which worked fine but yet again we had to bear in mind that sheet ice took no prisoners as the hapless driver of a Ford Escort found out when he turtled his car having lost it on the road to the slopes.
My associates and I all liked the leather seats, in fact there were no grumbles from the back seat passengers after 7 hours-no mean feat bearing in mind that they were not that well padded either!
Mitsubishi claims that the 2 wheel drive/4 wheel drive "shift on the fly" system is the best in the world and I suppose it is with the exception of the Mercedes which is even more advanced by virtue of the fact that electronic gizmos detect which wheel has traction and which one does not. Without any input from the driver-which is probably just as well-the car can still move ahead with loss of traction on three out of the four wheels!
All in all the Mitsubishi feels more macho, more robust. It feels like a truck ready to take on the Paris-Dakar rally all over again. The Mercedes seems more user friendly, a car-related SUV women would probably find easier to get used to.
I am not known for sitting on the fence when it comes to conclusions but this one is a close call. Until Mercedes enters endurance races such as the Paris-Dakar rally I would be tempted to suggest the Montero for those looking for a tough, proven truck. On the other hand, the Mercedes is state of the art in terms of styling, transmission, and many other aspects. With that massive three-pointed star on bonnet it is also-right now- the most coveted thing on four wheels this side of a Ferrari.
Full technical details are available on the TACH files