Mercedes-Benzs luxury sport utility vehicle gained a larger 5.0-liter V-8 engine for the 2002 model year, which prompted the automaker to change its designation from ML430 to ML500. Nothing dramatic is likely to occur for 2003, but Mercedes-Benz has not yet released details for the upcoming model year. M-Class sales have been reasonably brisk for a higher-end SUV. Automotive News reports that 45,655 M-Class models were sold during 2001, and that signifies a 13.5 percent drop compared to the previous year.
The M-Class is built in Alabama and comes in three models: the ML320, the ML500 and a high-performance ML55 AMG, which is created by Mercedes performance partner. All versions have permanently engaged four-wheel drive with a Low range and a five-speed-automatic transmission with Touch Shift. Traction control works when going downhill and while accelerating. Mercedes-Benzs Tele Aid emergency communication system can summon help or track a stolen vehicle. M-Class competitors range from the Acura MDX to the Ford Explorer and Lexus RX 300. The German automaker also offers the utilitarian-looking and more expensive G-Class (G500) SUV.
Measuring only an inch longer than its RX 300 rival, the four-door M-Class is 182.6 inches long overall. It rides a 111-inch wheelbase. At 71.7 inches tall, the M-Class is exactly 6 inches taller than the RX 300, which is quite a difference. The high-performance ML55 AMG is slightly larger than its mates. All models have a one-piece liftgate at the rear. The tires measure 17 inches in diameter on the ML320 and ML500 and 18 inches on the ML55 AMG. Xenon headlights and a power sunroof are available.
The M-Class seats five occupants on front buckets and a three-place split rear seat that folds to expand cargo space to 81.2 cubic feet. A two-place third-row seat is optional, which increases passenger capacity to five. Leather upholstery is standard on the ML500 and ML55 AMG and optional on the base ML320. The traditional Mercedes dashboard layout is augmented by a 5-inch LCD display with touch controls in the center console that operate climate, audio and telephone functions. It also operates the standard GPS-based navigation system on upper-end models.
Options included a Parktronic rear-obstacle detection system. Several special designo option groups have also been available. The designo editions for the M-Class combine metallic paint, two-tone Nappa leather upholstery and Poplar wood trim for the interior. In addition to the seats, designo Nappa leather covers the door pulls and door panels, the wood shift plate surround, front central armrest, gear lever and steering wheel. Parts finished in poplar wood trim include both the upper and lower center consoles, the shift plate, the rear window switch plate and the door handle surrounds.
Under the Hood
The high-performance ML55 AMG packs a 5.5-liter V-8 engine that develops 342 horsepower. The ML320 uses a 215-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine, and the ML500 comes with a 288-hp, 5.0-liter V-8. All models use a five-speed-automatic transmission with a manual shift gate. The permanently engaged four-wheel-drive system has a Low-range gear setting, and it distributes power among the four wheels as needed to maintain traction. Unlike its BMW X5 and RX 300 rivals, Mercedes insists that the M-Class is a true offroad vehicle.
All-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front and rear seats, and side curtain-type airbags are standard. The companys Tele Aid emergency communication system can summon help, and it kicks in automatically to call Mercedes roadside-assistance center if an airbag deploys. The system can also be used to track a stolen vehicle. The standard enhanced traction control system works when going downhill or uphill and when accelerating.