The Tuscaloosa, Alabama-built Mercedes-Benz sport-utility ML-Class has been a runaway success worldwide since its introduction last year. The original V6-powered ML320 has made a serious impression in the heart of the modern American SUV field, and has been successful in Europe as well. But the premium segment of the sport-utility market is growing strongly, and any premium automotive market segment is traditional habitat for Mercedes-Benz. The new 1999 ML430 is designed to establish Mercedes-Benz in the premium SUV marketplace in the same manner as the ML320 has done in its segment.
To that end, the ML430 builds on the strengths of the ML320, and adds power and luxury content. It shares chassis and body panels with the ML320, with slight trim modifications. Inside is more luxury, with the leather and walnut trim and other accoutrements that are part of the ML320's "M1" option package standard fare. In place of the 320's V6 engine, the 430 has a version of the Mercedes-Benz 4.3-liter V8 tuned for the broad "torque plateau" sport-utilities need for towing, slogging through mud, climbing steep hills, and merging effortlessly into traffic. Like its V6 sibling, the ML430 is designed primarily for all-weather comfort and luxury on paved roads, but is also capable of off-road use thanks to sturdy construction, good ground clearance, and a sophisticated dual-range automatic four-wheel-drive system.
A recent week at home and a long day in the mountains of Vermont during the press introduction last Fall allowed me to drive the ML430 in a wide variety of weather and terrain conditions. In all, it was an impressive machine, with the quiet road manners and authoritative power expected of a premium Mercedes-Benz sedan. If it is a bit smaller than some luxury SUVs, the ML430 is no less well- appointed and far easier to maneuver in the tight spaces of the urban jungle.
APPEARANCE: The ML430 shares the distinctive rounded, heavily- sculpted contours of the ML320. The ML320 has black mirrors and contrasting-colored bumpers and lower side trim; those parts on the ML430 are the same color as the rest of the body. The ML430 also has larger wheels -- 17-inch versus 16-inch -- and lower-profile tires. Other styling features, including the perforated grille with prominent corporate three-pointed star logo, teardrop headlamps, and steeply- sloped hood and windshield, are the same on both ML-Class models.
COMFORT: Technically, the ML430 is a truck. This can be easily forgotten. Large doors and a relatively low floor height make passenger access painless, and a swing-up liftgate and low cargo floor height does the same for cargo. The interior style is contemporary European luxury. Materials and finish are as expected in a premium Benz, with perforated leather seating and walnut trim on the doors and console. The instrument and control designs are different from those in the Mercedes sedans, but just as well-designed and useable. Versatility, comfort, and convenience are the watchwords. Firm, supportive, heated and power-adjustable front bucket seats and a three- place rear bench provide first-class comfort for all. 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. Convenient storage spaces are found throughout the cabin, with a lockable safe box under the front passenger seat most notable.
SAFETY: The ML-Class vehicles have all of the safety features expected in a modern Mercedes-Benz. A safety cage and crumple zones protect occupants. Standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes with the "Brake Assist" emergency stopping system are further enhanced by traction control and the "ESP" stability control system.
ROADABILITY: On the road, the ML430 feels much like a Mercedes- Benz sedan with sport-package suspension tuning - firm but not uncomfortably so, with little body roll and good steering response. It does not feel like or handle like a typical, truck-based SUV. Much credit is due to the rigid structure from its box-section frame and unit- construction body, and, unusually for a large SUV, fully-independent suspension. This combination means Mercedes sedan-like handling, even on bumpy, twisting secondary roads, and low noise levels. A short jaunt through muddy Vermont fire roads during the press introduction showed the ML430 to be quite capable of the sort of light- to medium-duty off road use that some will see in real life, and to be eminently comfortable while in such use.
PERFORMANCE: The 268-horsepower version of the 4.3-liter V8 that gives the ML430 its name puts the "sport" in "sport-utility." If external differences between the ML320 and ML430 are subtle, the distinction upon depressing the throttle pedal is not. Even at idle, there is a feeling of great power. The ML430 has plenty of power for everyday driving, even if that includes high-speed stretches of Autobahn. Power is available instantly and there is no mistaking that there is a healthy V8 under the hood. The 5-speed automatic transmission uses adaptive logic to vary its shifting to driving conditions. The 4-wheel drive system works with the traction control system to ensure mobility even if only one wheel has traction.
CONCLUSIONS: With the introduction of the ML430, Mercedes- Benz has a strong presence at the luxury end of the sport-utility category.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 43,750 Price As Tested $ 46,965 Engine Type 24-valve, single-overhead cam V8 Engine Size 4.3 liters / 260 cu. in. Horsepower 268 @ 5,500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 288 @ 3,000-4,500 rpm Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 111.0 in. / 180.6 in. Curb Weight 4,552 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17 Fuel Capacity 19 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium gasoline, 92 octane Tires P275/55 HR17 Dunlop Grand Trek m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock and Brake Assist 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 electronic transfer case and 4-wheel electronic traction control PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15 / 18 / 16 0 to 60 mph 8.0 sec Towing capacity 5,000 lbs with optional class III hitch Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.39 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Bose premium audio system with 6-disc CD changer $ 1,050 Glass sunroof $ 1,095 Metallic paint $ 475 Destination charge $ 595