SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
Mercedes-Benz is no newcomer to the four-wheel drive world, but its previous entries have been more all-terrain utility vehicles for serious backcountry use than the civilized, at-home-anywhere vehicle that is the modern sport-utility. The M-Class, represented for 1998 by the ML320, has certainly changed that situation. It is an all-new "clean sheet" design that combines all of the best comfort and handling features of a car with body-on-frame truck ruggedness and off-road ability. To that end, the M-Class utilizes a new chassis, new engine, and unique styling. Even the factory in which it is built is new. Acknowledging the importance of the U.S. to the company's future, the M-Class is built in the U.S., near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The ML320 is fully-equipped even in standard trim, with a sophisticated four-wheel drive system, 215-horsepower V6 engine and adaptive 5-speed automatic transmission, and all of the interior features expected in a Mercedes Benz sedan. Unlike some of its competitors, the ML320 is truck-tough with a separate, fully-boxed frame. Its fully independent suspension gives it stable handling and carlike comfort. Striking styling combines a definite Mercedes-Benz look with aerodynamic efficiency and plenty of space.
Recent time in an ML320 was time well spent. Nearly everything about the M-Class vehicle was impressive, but the truly car- like handling and quiet comfort were most notable. Every inch a Mercedes-Benz, the ML320 promises to make life interesting in the sport-utility class.
APPEARANCE: The radical styling of the "AAVision" concept vehicle of 1996 made it to production with remarkably few changes. The ML320 contains an interesting mix of car and truck styling cues. Although basically a functional two-box SUV, it is far more rounded and highly styled than the norm for sport-utilities. The wheels are moved towards the corners for interior room and off-road clearance. With its steeply-sloped windshield and rounded corners, the ML320 is boxy only in comparison to the AAVision. Its wide trapezoidal grille, made of perforated bars and prominently displaying the Mercedes- Benz three-pointed star, looks much like that found on the company's SLK sports roadster. The teardrop-shaped headlights also show an SLK influence. The plastic-coated bumpers are colored to contrast with the rest of the bodywork. The ML320 is a bit larger than most midsized SUVs and has presence on or off the road.
COMFORT: It's an easy climb into the ML320, even without running boards. Large doors and a relatively low floor height aid access. Inside, the ML320 is somewhat different in appointment than the Mercedes- Benz sedans but hardly Spartan, and still Mercedes-Benz in style and content. Although cloth upholstery and manually-adjustable front seats are standard, option package M1 includes leather upholstery, heated power front seats, walnut dashboard and console trim, a lockable storage box under the front passenger seat, and more. My test vehicle was so equipped, and was as comfortable as an E-Class sedan. Switchgear and climate system controls are different than those used in the Mercedes-Benz sedans, but are just as well-designed and convenient to use. Interior versatility is an ML320 strength. There are plenty of useful storage spaces, including door pockets in all four doors. The rear seat is wide enough for three passengers. The rear seat cushion is split one-third/two-thirds, with each side adjustable fore and aft. The seat back folds down in thirds. Each part can be folded, and the cushions tumble for flat-floor cargo hauling ability. The rear liftgate lifts easily, and a low lift height makes loading cargo easy.
SAFETY: The ML320 is designed to be as safe as any Mercedes-Benz. It has front and rear impact-absorbing zones, side-impact protection beams, height-adjustable shoulder straps for all outboard passengers (even in the rear seat), front and side airbags, and standard 4-wheel antilock disc brakes. The ML320's frame is designed for compatibility in height with passenger cars in collisions, for mutual safety.
ROADABILITY: The ML320 has raised the bar for sport-utility handling and comfort considerably. On the road, it doesn't feel like a truck at all. It is nearly as smooth and quiet as an E-Class sedan, with only a little thump over freeway expansion joints from the large truck- type tires giving away its SUV status. Despite its high stance, the ML320 corners securely, with little body roll. Credit the car-like fully independent double wishbone suspension for that. That suspension works when the road ends, too. Unlike some new-style sport-utilities, the ML320 has a dual-range transfer case for traction in serious off- road conditions. The stopping power of the 4-wheel antilock disc brakes is most impressive.
PERFORMANCE: New vehicle, new engine. The 3.2-liter, 215- horsepower V6 introduced in the ML320 is Mercedes-Benz's first V6. The innovative, lightweight, compact aluminum alloy powerplant is designed for smooth, quiet, efficient operation, and is also used in the 1998 E320 sedan. The new V6 has power characteristics that give the ML320 good acceleration in traffic or on the highway. The 5-speed automatic transmission is the same as that used in other Benzes, and adapts its shifting to each driver's driving style.
CONCLUSIONS: The Mercedes-Benz ML320 has raised the standards for the sport-utility class.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 33,950 Price As Tested $ 39,640 Engine Type aluminum alloy V6, single overhead cam, 18 valves Engine Size 3.2 liters / 195 cu. in. Horsepower 215 @ 5500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 233 @ 3000 Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 111.0 in. / 180.6 in. Curb Weight 4,200 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.5 Fuel Capacity 19 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires P235/65 R16 General Grabber ST m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone with torsion bars / independent double wishbone with coil springs Ground Clearance 8.4 inches Drivetrain front engine, full-time four-wheel drive with 2-speed transfer case PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 21 / 19 0 to 60 mph 9.0 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.0 sec Towing Capacity 5000 lbs. with Class III hitch Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.39 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Package M1 - includes: Leather-trimmed seats, steering wheel, and gearshift knob; walnut dashboard and console trim; heated, 8-way power front seats; auto-dimming inside mirror; trip computer, outside temperature gauge, lockable safebox, privacy glass $ 2,950 Bose premium audio system with 6-disc CD changer $ 1,050 Glass sunroof $ 1,095