If it strikes you that the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee seem to be the sport-utes of choice for the everyday, backwards-baseball-cap-wearing masses, take heart. The 1999 Mercedes-Benz ML430, the second model in the company's M-Class line, lends a hefty dose of status to the SUV market. It's as if Tiffany or Escada got into off-roading. The base price is even somewhat reasonable - $43,750 before adding such options as the $1,050 Bose premium audio system and the $1,095 glass sunroof But we found in some respects the ML430 does not live up to the storied Mercedes brand name. She: You've heard of trophy wives and trophy kids. They make other people jealous because they're beautiful and make you look so successful. Well, the ML430 is the perfect trophy truck. If status and brand name are important to you, this is the sport-utility you want. If you can afford it. He: How come nobody ever talks about trophy husbands? She: That would be like talking about magic elves. They don't exist. He: OK, hold that thought until our next visit to the trophy marriage counselor. You were talking about status and brand name. Mercedes has both in spades. Unfortunately, the ML430 doesn't adequately back up either quality. For about $10,000 less, the Jeep Grand Cherokee with the 4.7-liter V-8 is a much better value - and a better vehicle. If you want even more comfort, check out the Lexus RX300. For sheer status, you can spend $56,000 on a Lexus LX470 or $58,000 on a Range Rover. Or wait until BMW rolls out the new X5 early next year for around $50,000. She: You're just confusing the issue with all that. The bottom line is that Mercedes has a weightier name than all those brands you just mentioned. Wouldn't you agree? He: I'm not arguing the cachet of the three-pointed star. I guess I'm just a little disappointed that the ML430 wasn't a better vehicle. I had a number of problems, beginning with the very disturbing tendency of the steering not to return to center after you turn a sharp corner. I almost drove up on someone's lawn the first time that happened. And I still don't understand why the seats in the ML feel so thin and underpadded. She: I guess you never tried on a couture suit. They're not made for comfort, they're made for status. Which probably also gives you some idea why Mercedes has not made a minivan. But you have to give the company credit for being practical in some areas. They really paid attention to safety with the ML430, which I think is a huge issue for women shopping the sport-ute market. They're not just superficially looking for logos. So I think they'll like the side air bags, the traction control and the standard BabySmart seat system, which deactivates the front passenger-side air bag when you use a special child seat. He: Actually, the new V-8 is pretty nice, too. It's a single-overhead-cam 4.3-liter unit that makes 268 horsepower and 288 pounds-feet of torque. Mercedes bundl es it with a five-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive, so you don"t have to fiddle with any levers or switches to get optimum traction and efficiency. She: One point you didn't bring up is the negative buzz about M-class quality - or lack thereof. They're working on it at the Alabama plant. But the latest J.D. Power Survey still ranked the M-Class near the bottom of the sport-ute category in terms of initial quality. Among the problems were things like misaligned sunroofs, poorly installed insulation and lousy paint jobs. This is not the kind of thing you want to hear when you are spending $47,000 on a new vehicle. He: Funny, weren't you mentioning Mercedes and Escada in the same breath? And does the brand still maintain its lofty status if the quality is questionable? I think the ML430 falls short in other ways, too. Ride quality is nowhere close to that of a Range Rover or even a Grand Cherokee. And if you have long legs, forget about finding a rtable position in the rear seat. So exactly what are you getting for that $47,000? A great engine and a three-pointed star? She: You are getting envious looks from other people at the country club. And you won't get that in your Grand Cherokee. 1999 Mercedes-Benz ML430 Anita's rating: above average
Paul's rating: acceptable Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle. Price: Base, $43,750; as tested, $46,965 (inc. $595 destination charge). Engine: 4.3-liter V-8; 268-hp at 5500 rpm; 288 lb-ft torque at 4500 rpm. EPA fuel economy: 15 mpg city/18 mpg highway. 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,963 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.) Where built: Vance, Alabama. What we liked: The perfect trophy truck; classic looks won't go out of style; high seating position enhances visibility, feeling of security; powerful V-8; key safety features like side air bags, traction control and BabySmart seat. What we didn't like: Power steering didn't want to return to center after turning; seats felt too thin; limited legroom in rear seats; pricey at $47,000; mediocre fuel economy; why doesn't Mercedes-Benz make a minivan? (Anita)
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