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New Car Review

1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320

by John Heilig


SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide


ENGINE:             3.2-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  215hp @ 5,500 rpm/233 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION:       Five-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:       17 mpg city,  21 mpg highway (est.)
WHEELBASE:          111.0 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:     180.6 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT:     69.9 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:      72.2 in.
CURB WEIGHT:        4,200 lbs 
FUEL CAPACITY:      19.0 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:   39.2/85.4 cu. ft. (rear seat up/down)
TIRES:              255/65R16
INSTRUMENTS:        Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, 
                    water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:          Power windows, power door locks, 
                    power mirrors, cruise control, 
                    heated seats, fuel management 
                    computer, exterior temperature 
                    readout, air conditioner, 
                    AM-FM stereo radio with cassette, 
                    anti-lock braking, four air bags, 
                    ETS traction control.
STICKER PRICE:      $35,000 (est.)

The questions before us, class, are "Can you build a Mercedes-Benz in the United States?" and "Can you build it in Alabama?" The answer to both is a resounding "Yes!"

With an interior of leather and wood, a ride quality unlike anything else in its class, and build quality that has been nurtured over 100 years, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class All Activity Vehicle, also known as the ML320, is a Mercedes-Benz to the core. It is solid, capable, roadworthy and off-roadworthy. That Mercedes-Benz is able to build and sell it at $35,000 and still make a profit is a tribute to their ingenuity.

Mercedes introduced the M-Class in Huntsville, Alabama, at the Space and Rocket Center. It was not lost on anyone that Huntsville was the place where a group of Germans led by Dr. Werner von Braun worked with Americans to build the greatest rockets in the world. Further south, in Tuscaloosa, a group of Germans has worked with Americans to build what may be the best sport utility vehicle in the world.

Powering the ML320 is an all-new all-aluminum V-6 engine that is built in an all-new factory in Germany. It is attached to the all-aluminum transfer case and gearbox in an all-new factory in Tuscaloosa. Eventual production is projected at 65,000 per year or 237 per day. Present production is around 50 per day as the line ramps up.

The 3.2-liter V-6 is rated at 215 horsepower and is enough for the M-Class. There's always the desire for more power, and to assuage that power, Mercedes-Benz will introduce a V-8 engine in the fall of 1998. Both engines are built off the same line using modular techniques. In all our on and off-road driving we never had a need for more power, just the desire.

The five-speed automatic gearbox is smooth. Mercedes employs its traditional gated shifter with a simple handle. No fancy ergonomic sculpted handles are necessary. Located in a wood-trimmed center console, the shifter falls easily to the driver's hand. This console also contains the power window switches and two cupholders, both of which were large enough to hold water bottles.

On the dash is an instrument panel consisting of speedometer, tachometer, fuel and water gauges. In the center is an AM/FM stereo radio with a cassette player and rotary switches for the HVAC system. There are cupholders at the corners of the dash, similar to the Chevy Malibu and Olds Cutlass, for example, but these are deep enough so that the water bottles don't tip over. There are two more cupholders at the back of the console for rear seat passengers.

Seats are leather-upholstered and very comfortable; more comfortable, for example, than in the C-Class. They are also heated, which is a definite advantage on longer trips. Rear seat legroom and comfort is excellent. The backs of the front seats are sculpted to accommodate the legs f the rear seat passengers. The center passenger in the rear may actually have the most comfortable seat. There's good headroom both front and back. Visibility to the right rear is poor with the headrests up, but the mirrors compensate.

The rear seat folds and jogs forward to create a huge flat-floored cargo area. While it doesn't look bigger, it holds more cargo than any other mid-sized sport utility, based on soda cases, grocery bags and luggage. Access to the cargo area is through a hatch that is easy to lift. It does take two hands to lower it, though. The right hand pulls it down to mid level and then the left hand finishes off the job.

Under the hood, the engine is clean with its "Mercedes-Benz" valve covers. The dip sticks and fluid holders are clearly marked. The fluid containers are located toward the outside of the underhood area, making filling them easier.

On the road, the ML320 is very car-like. It is probably smoother than any other sport utility I have driven, and I had a chance to drive both the Jeep Cherokee and Lincoln Navigator around the ML320 ride. The vehicle handles like a sedan, only with a higher seating position. Compared with the Cherokee, it is a softer ride, but with just as positive a feeling inside.

Off-road, we drove the ML320 through muck and up and down a hill through a tough course. We negotiated fallen trees and rocks on a path that was made more difficult by 15 straight days of rain. The ML320 handled the course well, and I came away with the idea that the car is probably smarter than I am. To negotiate anything, all you have to do is keep your foot on the gas and your hands on the steering wheel. Going downhill, I had to keep my feet off the brake and let the ML320 do its thing. All this was accomplished in four-wheel drive low and first gear.

The ML320 is equipped with full-time four-wheel drive, so you don't have to worry about shifting transfer cases, the car's internal computers figure out how to apply the power.

The only negative to the ride comfort was on a washboard road, but not that many vehicles can handle that kind of road with grace anyway.

I came away from our Alabama excursion wondering how Mercedes can build this vehicle for $35,000, which makes it Mercedes' second-cheapest vehicle. I wouldn't be surprised if it cuts into C-Class sales. This is definitely a winner for Mercedes-Benz.