Granted, the initial quality was pretty grim, but this was, after all, the first product assembled in the then-new Tuscaloosa, Ala., plant. The absence of quality and the location of the plant spawned some bad jokes, based on the old Groucho Marx shot-an-elephant-in-my-pajamas bit: "We tried to remove the tusks, but they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama, the Tuscaloosa!"
Yeah, said ML 320 owners, so are all the parts on my new SUV.
Actually, it wasn't that bad, but the M-Class did more than its share to lower Mercedes' quality ratings. The problems were promptly fixed, but it took years for that message to get out. It only takes one year -- in this case, 1998, the first model year for the ML320 -- for the stories of questionable quality to spread.
Too bad. I thought the 1998 ML 320, for the money -- $33,950, reasonably well-equipped -- was one of the most satisfying sport utes on the market. It was big, comfortable, did well enough off-road, and for the price of a deluxe Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer Limited Edition, you could drive a Mercedes.
The company improved the M-Class considerably, and the Alabama plant is now one of the best in the Benz family. But it was time for a change: The 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 is essentially all-new, moving from a trucklike body-on-frame construction to a carlike unibody platform. Exterior styling is more evolutionary than revolutionary, giving the 2006 M-Class a fresh appearance, but retaining a sense of family.
The test vehicle was an ML 350, meaning it had a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6. You can also get the ML 500, with a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8. Really, with the world-class seven-speed automatic transmission, the V-6 seems plenty powerful.
The '06 M-Class is a five-passenger vehicle, with no optional third seat. Understandable, as Mercedes is about to come out with the R-Class, a longer SUV from this same Alabama plant that will have three rows of seats. The new M-Class is almost 6 inches longer and 3 inches wider than before, so now even the rear seat passengers have some legroom.
Inside, designers have managed to make the ML 350's interior appear Mercedes-worthy. The base model, at just under $40,000, even looks reasonably upscale. The test model had several options, including a Premium Package that added leather upholstery, a navigation system, TeleAid (like GM's OnStar) and several other features. Total price, $50,225, wasn't out of line.
While the M-Class remains all-wheel-drive, there is no low-range gearing, a tip-off that it isn't really meant for serious off-roading, but it's certainly capable of mild cow-trailing. The ride is improved, wind noise is reduced, and in general, this is a pretty nice highway vehicle.
If I don't sound quite as impressed with the 2006 model as some of my colleagues, it's because I thought the last M-Class had evolved into an excellent vehicle, and the '06 model is a logical progression. It was a nice vehicle then. It's a nicer one now.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith's TV reports air Wednesdays in Central Florida News 13.