An M-Class with muscle.
by Sue Mead
It's the "Year of the V-8" for Mercedes-Benz, and fortunately the M-Class shares in the celebration. The ML320, powered with a V-6, was an immediate hit after its 1998 debut. The new ML430 seeks to build on that success by adding a pinch of style and a pound of oomph.
Setting the ML430 apart from the ML320 is a 268-horsepower 4.3-liter V-8, aggressive 17-inch wheels, body-colored bumpers, heated leather seats and wood trim. New in 1999 for both M-Class variants are an optional louvered roof and two active safety systems unique to SUVs: Brake Assist and ESP.
A capable vehicle on and off the beaten path, this compact sport-ute combines refined road manners with true off-road performance. It drives like a Mercedes -- albeit a tall one -- in any weather and on any surface.
Few suspected that Mercedes-Benz would enter the SUV market, much less become a major player in the heart of the premium segment. But after the ML320 drove away with the 1998 North American Truck of the Year award, along with a trunkload of others, it's clear that this German automaker hit the sweet spot. And now Mercedes comes to bat with a new big hitter -- the ML430 with a base price of $43,750.
For some, the jury is still out on M-Class styling. It's been likened to a vehicle that is morphed somewhere between the mom-pleasing minivan and the now-popular aggressive sport-utility styling. Despite a certain amount of ambivalence on the styling issue, hordes of buyers have obviously found it appealing. The grille (and its prominent three-pointed star) evokes the styling of the marque's roadsters and coupes, while the hood lines are traditional Mercedes. The swoopy headlamps and bumper air scoop show more unconventional traits, however.
Passenger doors are large (more than four inches wider than Explorer's) and swing wide, while the enormous rear hatch allows even the tallest individuals to stand comfortably underneath. A substantial C-pillar displays the solidity of the body-on-frame construction.
Exterior enhancements over the V-6 model include privacy glass, color-keyed bumpers and mirrors, and bold seven-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels with 55-series tires. These changes make ML430 more of an urban and highway cruiser than its down-and-dirty V-6 sibling.
Under the sloped hood (which feels a bit flimsy and is only supported by a manual prop-rod in lieu of the usual gas-pressured struts) lurks an advanced V-8 engine that cranks out 268 horsepower and a prodigious 288 foot-pounds of torque. That kind of oomph facilitates not only an eight-second 0-to-60 sprint, but also effortless passing and around-town driving as well.
The root of the new engine's power is also the secret of its efficiency. An innovative three-valve-per-cylinder design makes room for twin spark plugs, allowing for better control of the combustion process. This combined with light weight, low friction, and tuned induction make ML430's engine the new standard for emissions, fuel economy, and response.
An excellent driver-adaptive five-speed automatic transmission and two-speed transfer case yield a total of 10 forward speeds. Low range is selected by simply pushing a button on the dashboard.
Four-wheel drive is full time, but instead of traditional locking differentials, the M-Class uses existing ABS hardware and special software to achieve the same effect without the added complexity, cost, or weight of a mechanical system. The system effortlessly ensures the vehicle's forward progress even when only one wheel has traction.
Mercedes has always been a leader in active safety, and the M-Class is no exception. Not surprisingly, anti-lock brakes are standard, but the M-Class has a unique edge in stopping ability: Brake Assist. German engineers found that even the best drivers do not brake hard enough, or soon enough, in an emergency. The Brake Assist system provides full braking force automatically when it detects sudden brake application. This system works transparently and can reduce stopping distances considerably.
Also unique to the SUV market is ESP, which in this case stands for Electronic Stability Program. When activated, this remarkable feature helps maintain directional stability in emergency situations and on slippery surfaces by momentarily applying the brake on an individual wheel -- something even the best driver cannot accomplish.
A fully independent suspension provides car-like handling and a ride close to that of a Mercedes sedan. It has tremendous confidence-inspiring composure and stability. But when this dual-personality vehicle switches over to its off-road "truck" side, the springs (torsion bar in front, coil in back) allow exceptional wheel travel through rocky streambeds as well as over potholed urban streets.
For those who want the exact numbers, the interior is 98.44 percent Mercedes. (The remainder was provided by American suppliers). Teutonic and businesslike, the controls are neatly organized, though not exactly where they belong. The radio is mounted high in the genuine walnut console, but to the right of the seldom-used low range switch. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controls are logical and easy to manipulate. Mercedes' signature oversize leather-wrapped steering wheel remains, providing a clear view of the large instruments. Outside visibility, augmented by large mirrors, is exceptional.
Now come the concessions made for the American market. To make room for a cupholder (not your typical German feature), Mercedes abandoned the dash-mounted rotary knob and put the headlamp switch on a stalk, instead. Incidentally, the cupholders are a mixed blessing: While they are well built and elegant, they only hold a limited range of container sizes. The electric seat controls are not on the door panel, as is usually the case with M-B cars, but on the seat itself. This puts the M-Class in step with the rest of the automotive world.
In general, the quality of materials is quite high. But there are some details that don't quite measure up. The glovebox hinges and the faux wood (first ever on a Benz) on the interior door grips, for example, suggest that the M-Class is not built to the same standards as the company's other vehicles. The Alabama facility that produces the SUV is still new, however, so improvement is likely. Overall, though, workmanship is quite good: all body panels fit well, and doors shut with typical Mercedes authority.
Both front- and rear-seat occupants sit in comfort in the ML430's leather-trimmed seats. Even our tallest drivers and passengers had plenty of room. The front seats are heated, and there are headrests for all five positions. Driver and front passenger alike are protected by front and side airbags, in addition to seat belt pretensioners and force limiters. Now a note to parents: the passenger airbag automatically deactivates when a BabySmart-compatible seat is installed.
Cargo room in the ML430 is impressive, given it's rather compact; it makes good use of available space. The load space is low, deep and wide and can be configured in any number of ways, thanks to the three-way split rear seat. The cargo bay also features a 12-volt accessory outlet and plenty of tie-downs. Towing capacity for both M-Class models is 5000 pounds with the optional Class III hitch.
For those who are never fully satisfied with an off-the-assembly-line product, the M-Class can be equipped with many factory and dealer-fitted options. The most interesting, however, is the new Skyview Top, a nine-panel louvered sunroof that opens to nearly four feet -- the largest factory sunroof in the world.
Our recent ride test of the new V-8 M-Class in northern Vermont included a wide variety of driving surfaces. On-road driving took place on Vermont's Route 91 and numerous secondary roads through the famed Smuggler's Notch region. The ML430's power is noticeably better than that in the ML340, although it comes at the expense of a slight increase in engine noise. The added noise is especially noticeable while accelerating to speed. But on balance, we feel the extra auditory aggravation is more than offset by the extra passing confidence that the new V-8 brings to highway driving. Handling is superb, with crisp steering and little body roll, even on corkscrew roads.
A small sampling of dirt roads in the Stowe area provided an opportunity to evaluate this SUV's capability in the back country. Here, the M-Class's independent suspension worked like a charm over bumps and berms, smoothing the ride. Also, low-range gears provided a sure grip when traversing steep terrain.
Combining world-class SUV capabilities with traditional Mercedes-Benz poise -- and now plenty of power -- this new M-Class has been added to our wish list.
But one issue does give us pause. The ML320, at $34,950, is a relative bargain compared to the $43,750 asking price for the ML430. Is the extra punch worth the price? Mercedes is betting that, for many buyers, it will be.
© 1998 The Car Connection