1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

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1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
Available in 1 styles:  ML320 4dr AWD Classic shown
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Estimated MPG

17 city / 21 hwy

Expert Reviews

    Expert Reviews 3 of 7
1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 4.0 4
$ 1,406-6,226
January 3, 1998

The trail was steep and narrow, strewn with big rocks and gravel, plus the deep, eroded ravines that only Mother Nature can provide.

Just the place for a Mercedes-Benz.

Not long ago, that would have sounded facetious. But not anymore.

Mercedes' long-awaited sport-utility vehicle, the ML320, has arrived this model year to rave reviews, putting the tri-star emblem solidly among the top echelon of the popular mud-slinging, snow-churning, Cub Scout-toting four-by-fours.

Quality, durability, driveability - the M-class brings it all to the table. Plus a little something that Mercedes just recently has recognized as an important factor: dollar value.

The ML320 is not perfect, but with its midrange price and Mercedes' towering reputation for solid, reliable cars, this SUV pulls into the winner's circle with accolades to spare.

But back to the trail. It was just outside Black Canyon City that I spotted the rocky route twisting sharply uphill to a ridge.

My wife looked worried as we shook, thumped and listed our way up the slope, narrowly passing between boulders and throwing gravel from our spinning wheels.

How much is this again? Oh, never mind.

But I was impressed. With what seemed like a minimum of effort in its low-range setting, the ML320 made short work of this very challenging obstacle course. I would've thought twice before taking most expensive sport-utility vehicles up this killer route.

The electronic four-wheel drive, which uses a traction-control system to sense wheel spin and send power to each wheel as needed, could challenge a mountain goat.

Minutes later, we were back on the highway, marveling at the ML320's excellent road manners and firm ride, compared with the soft springing of most comfort-keyed sport utes. The Mercedes' all-independent suspension is unique among truck-based sport utes.

Mercedes-Benz's lovely new V-6 engine, a first for the German company, provides strong, even power with a bit of extra roar at acceleration. A V-8 is reputedly in the offing.

The rounded styling drew mixed reactions, some complaining that it looked more like a minivan than a sport ute, lacking the macho character that draws so many buyers to the other brands. There were comments that it looked small and stubby, not big and muscular like a Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition.

The high seating position, sharply canted hood and slow steering response also made it feel vanlike. The steering was bothersome, requiring too much input for change of direction and contrasting poorly with Mercedes' usually tight, responsive steering systems.

I believe the engineers intentionally slowed up the steering response to lessen risk of tipping, a concern in any high-profile vehicle. Mercedes is a bit sensitive about that issue these days, having taken some serious lumps in Europe recently when a magazine writer turned a newly marketed Mercedes minicar on its roof during a moose-avoidance test.

Not to sa y that the ML320 feels tippy. On the contrary, this is one ute that actually handles. It's notably stable in corners and can be driven pretty much like a passenger car.

The interior is comfortable, in a solidly Benz sort of way, with the optional hard leather seats needing to be broken in like a new pair of boots. The five-seater we tested is roomy, bigger inside than it looks, with particularly inviting rear seats and broad stowage in the back.

The optional stereo, including a CD player that didn't skip on rough terrain, is fabulous.

Some klinkers mar the ML's cabin. First, I was amazed at the rococo tackiness of the fake wood inserts plastered broadly on the interior door handles. It contrasted poorly with the real walnut on the dash and console.

Also, the big, console-mounted switches for the electric windows were often activated accidentally. I thought an electronic gremlin was rolling down the rear windows, until I realized the culprit was my elbow.

And the op tional trip-computer/compass/whatnot display is so small and inconsequential, it took days to realize it was there.

The bottom line of our test vehicle was pushed up by a $3,000 leather/accessories package, a $1,000 Bose stereo system and a $1,100 sunroof.

The ML320 sets out on a course of its own, with no real competition aside from the much smaller volume Land Rover Discovery. The Benz's price, about the same as a Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer edition or Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited and much less than a well-equipped Mercury Navigator or Toyota Land Cruiser, should give many shoppers pause.

And Lexus soon will unveil its first home-grown SUV, possibly stealing some of ML320's thunder.

There's still a significant waiting list in Arizona for delivery of an ML320, and Mercedes-Benz expects to easily sell out its initial run of 40,000 SUVs, all built in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the company's first U.S. plant. Production will be boosted next year, according to Mercedes.

Everybody loves a winner, and the ML320 has had winner written all over it ever since it was just a concept car on the auto-show circuit.

That Mercedes could pull it off at a competitive price is no less than remarkable.

1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport-utility vehicle, all-wheel drive. Base price: $33,950. Price as tested: $40,115. Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, 233 pounds-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Curb weight: 4,200 pounds. Length: 180.6 inches. EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway. Highs: Excellent road manners. Impressive off-road ability. Strong dollar value. Lows: Slow steering response. Ugly "wood" accents. Clumsy window switches.

    Expert Reviews 3 of 7

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