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New Car/Review


By Tom Hagin


Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 43,750
Price As Tested                                    $ 45,915
Engine Type              SOHC 24-valve 4.3 Liter V8 w/SMFI*
Engine Size                                 260 cid/4366 cc
Horsepower                                   268 @ 5500 RPM
Torque (lb-ft)                               288 @ 4500 RPM
Wheelbase/Width/Length                  111.0"/72.2"/180.6"
Transmission                           Five-speed automatic
Curb Weight                                     4573 pounds
Fuel Capacity                                  19.0 gallons
Tires  (F/R)                         275/55R17 mud and snow
Brakes (F/R)                          Disc (ABS)/disc (ABS)
Drive Train                    Front-engine/all-wheel-drive
Vehicle Type                       Five-passenger/five-door
Domestic Content                                        N/A
Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                              0.39


EPA Economy, miles per gallon
city/highway/average                            15/18/17          
0-60 MPH                                        8.5 seconds
Maximum payload capacity                        1340 pounds          
Maximum towing capacity                         5000 pounds

* Sequential multi-point fuel injection     

Mercedes-Benz sales are surging in this country. Some of this success may be due to the popularity of the company's M-Class SUVs, which are being built at a furious pace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where both the V6-powered ML320 and ML430 V8 are built. This week we test a 430 version in standard trim.

OUTSIDE - The M-Class breaks the mold of the traditional boxy SUV with its smooth corners and muscular wheel arches. It sits lower than many SUVs, and its bumpers are low enough to avoid overriding most passenger cars. Its rounded shape pays off in fuel economy because of its 0.39 drag coefficient, which is much less than most SUVs on the road today. The M-Class SUV is usually dressed conservatively, without a hint of off-road intentions but side-steps, a spare tire carrier and a brush guard are some of the accessories we've seen on the road. New this year, however, is a Sport exterior package that adds side cladding, body-color front and rear bumpers, special 17-inch alloy wheels and a chrome exhaust tip. A power glass sunroof is also optional, but a new option this year is a unique nine-panel steel moonroof that retracts and stacks on top like window blinds. The roof rack can hold up to 220 pounds.

INSIDE - The M-Class interior is as straightforward as the Mercedes sedans. The wide dashboard uses sharp creases and flat planes, and features handy fold-down drinkholders on both sides. The gauges are easy to read and fairly complete. Its center console houses the shift lever and window switches, along with a sizable storage well. The ventilation and audio controls are easily within reach. There is also a lockable box under the front seat. Both front bucket seats are powered, with simple adjustments located on each front door panel. There are seat belts provided for five, but three across in back is tight. That seat folds down to increase cargo space, which is ample in the M-Class. New this year is a third row of seats, which increases passenger capacity to seven. Standard features include automatic climate control, power windows, door locks and mirrors, cruise control, remote locking, tilt steering, heated seats and an AM/FM/cassette stereo.

ON THE ROAD - While the ML320 uses a 215-horse V6 that is a marvel of technology, our test rig had a 4.3 liter 268-horse V8 engine. It's an all-aluminum design, with single overhead camshafts and 24 valves, and uses the latest in pollution control technology. Its healthy growl under acceleration is a joy to hear, and it pushes this heavy machine with authority. Maximum torque is 288 pound-feet, which is not exceptionally high for the class, but it's smoothly available across a wide RPM range. Towing capacity is 5000 pounds. The engine is mated to an "intelligent" five-speed automatic transmission and a sophisticated full-time four-wheel drive system. The process splits power 50/50 front and rear during everyday driving, but can automatically use brake intervention to send power to any wheel retaining traction. Standard equipment includes Mercedes' innovative Electronic Stability Program, which helps control skids and slides.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - The M-class uses a sturdy, rigid body shell, much like unit-body construction, but it's mounted atop a rugged, box- sectioned steel frame and cushioned by a multitude of rubber mounts. It has true four-wheel independent suspension, and many of its parts are made of forged aluminum. It rides low to the ground, and the ride is firm, so it handles less like a truck and more like a car. The rack-and-pinion steering system is sharp and precise, and the turning radius is just 37-feet. Compared to the ML320, the 430 has bigger 13-inch disc brakes, vented both front and rear. They're aided by a four-channel anti-lock braking system (ABS), and Brake Assist, another safety system that senses a panic stop and automatically applies maximum braking force to the ABS.

SAFETY - Dual dashboard airbags, side-impact airbags, steel door beams, ESP, traction control, ABS, Brake Assist and automatic seat belt pre-tensioners are standard.

OPTIONS - None on our test vehicle.