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Expert Reviews 1 of 7
By Tom Strongman
February 20, 1998
In a single stroke, the Mercedes-Benz ML320 has changed the face of sport-utility vehicles. Not only is its $33,950 base price extremely competitive, but it also excels in both off- and on-road driving. That's a tricky compromise to strike.
Normally, if an SUV is truly adept off-road, then its on-pavement ride is tortuous; if it rides smoothly on the road then its off-road skills suffer. Mercedes-Benz, however, has created an all-new vehicle that does both well. It is built exclusively in a
new factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Key ingredients for its brush bashing prowess are the double-wishbone suspension and the electronic traction control system (4ETS). 4ETS is a full-time four-wheel-drive system that splits power 50/50 front-to-rear
under normal driving. When the wheel sensors detect slippage braking is applied to the spinning wheel and power is transferred to the wheel or wheels with traction. Even with only one tire in solid contact with the ground the ML320 can pull itself
forward. A low range gives it one of the slowest crawl speeds in the industry, according to Mercedes. This electronic system turns the ML320 into a mountain goat capable of traversing a slippery slope as casually as most SUVs negotiate a fast-food
drive-through. Last summer, during the vehicle's press introduction, Mercedes-Benz created a challenging off-road course that included offset dirt mounds that lifted two wheels off the ground at once. Normally, conquering this kind of obstacle would
require three locking differentials, but 4ETS enabled the ML320 to crawl over without hesitation. The lack of locking differentials improves on-pavement behavior. Power comes from an aluminum 3.2-liter V6 with 215 horsepower. A balance shaft that
cancels vibrations sits within the heart of the engine block. This engine has three valves per cylinder--two intake and one exhaust. Two spark plugs for each cylinder allow for more complete combustion and lower emissions. Mercedes recently announced that
the ML320 passes all California emission regulations (the most strict), meets federal NLEV (National Low Emission Vehicle) standards and performs at Super-Ultra-Low-Emission-Vehicle (S-ULEV) levels better than many passenger cars. Fuel economy is
rated at 17 mpg city and 21 highway. A five-speed automatic transmission is the only one offered, but its gated shifter can be manipulated quite effectively for those who like to exercise more control over its shifting. Hauling around more
than 4,200 pounds is no easy task for an engine this size, but it seems more than up to the task. Stand on the throttle and the engine generates a satisfying surge. Out on the highway it settles into an easy gait that is deceivingly fast, thanks to the
smooth ride and car-like handling. Crank the wheel into a turn and the ML takes it like a sedan. It does not pitch or wobble like so many top-heavy SUVs do. Small bumps and cracks in the pavement are transferred
into the body by the tires, but the actual ride is very nearly as supple as any Mercedes four-door. The 111-inch wheelbase is roughly the same as a Ford Explorer and 5.1 inches longer than a Jeep Grand Cherokee. With the seats down total cargo
space is 85.4 cu. ft., versus 81.6 cu. ft. for the Explorer and 79.3 cu.ft. for the Grand Cherokee. A longer cargo area would have inhibited off-road use. Slip inside the tall cabin and you will find the surroundings typical Mercedes-Benz.
Instrumentation is simple without being plain, auxiliary controls have a precise feel and the steering wheel is large. There are front and side airbags for both driver and passenger. The front seats have fairly flat bottoms and are separated by a large
central console that contains buttons for power windows, locks and mirrors. Putting these buttons in the central console makes it easier to produce right-hand-drive versions for export, but I still prefer window and lock buttons on the doors.
Cupholders that pivot outward are built into each end of the dash. Our test vehicle was equipped with the M1 package ($2,950) of leather-trimmed, heated, eight-way power seats, Walnut trim on dash and console, trip computer, privacy glass and
lockable safe box under the passenger seat. Very cozy. The woodgrain trim on the door handles, however, doesn't match the real wood on the dash and console. The three-section back seat slides forward to expand the luggage space, or to put kids
riding in child safety seats closer to those in front. If you have two kids in back, the center section can fold down between them like a table. Having three sections gives more options for hauling configurations, but folding down the seat is more
complicated than necessary. Getting a completely flat load floor requires considerable tugging to move the whole seat forward and down. A third-seat may be optional in the future, which explains the seat design. Next fall, a second M-Class will be
offered with a 268-horsepower V8. Designated ML430, it will also have 17-inch wheels and a top track speed of 130 mph. Price will be under $45,000. Price The base price of our test car was $33,950. Options included the M1 package, power glass
sunroof and metallic paint, which brought the sticker price to $39,065. Warranty The standard warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.
Point: A luxury SUV that takes corners like a car and slogs through rough stuff with equal aplomb is quite an accomplishment. The four-wheel-drive system is superb in all but the most hairy off-road situation. Counterpoint: The tri-folding back
seat is handy but overly complicated. Woodgrain trim around the door handles doesn't match the walnut on the console. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 3.2-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 111 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,200
lbs. BASE PRICE: $33,950 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $39,065 MPG RATING: 17 city, 21 hwy.