Mercedes-Benzs conventionally styled luxury sport utility vehicle gained a larger 3.7-liter V-6 engine midway through the 2003 model year, which prompted the automaker to change the designation of the ML320 model to ML350. For 2004, a DVD-based navigation system is a factory option for the ML350; it is priced under $1,000 and comes as standard equipment on the ML500. An Inspiration Edition remains available until late fall of 2003, but the high-performance ML55 AMG model has been dropped.
Built in Alabama, the ML350 carries a 232-horsepower V-6 engine, while the ML500 packs a 288-hp, 5.0-liter V-8. Both models have permanently engaged four-wheel drive with a Low range. The five-speed-automatic transmission features Touch Shift manual-gear selection. 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 include the Acura MDX, Ford Explorer and redesigned Lexus RX 330. The German automaker also offers the utilitarian-looking and more expensive G-Class SUV.
Measuring an inch shorter than the BMW X5 and 3.6 inches shorter than the RX 330, the four-door M-Class is 182.6 inches long overall and rides on a 111-inch wheelbase. At 71.7 inches tall, the M-Class is 5.6 inches taller than the RX 330. M-Class models have a one-piece liftgate at the rear and 17-inch tires. Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights and a power sunroof are available.
The M-Class seats five people on front buckets and a three-place split rear seat that folds to expand cargo space to 81.2 cubic feet. An optional two-place third-row seat increases passenger capacity to seven. Leather upholstery is standard in the ML500 and optional in the ML350. The traditional Mercedes dashboard layout is augmented by a 5-inch LCD display with touch controls in the center console that operate the climate, audio and telephone functions. This feature also controls the GPS-based navigation system thats standard in the ML500.
Options include a Parktronic rear-obstacle detection system. Several special designo option groups that combine metallic paint, two-tone Nappa leather upholstery and Poplar wood trim for the interior have also been available. In addition to the seats, designo Nappa leather covers the door pulls, door panels, front central armrest, gear lever and steering wheel.
Under the Hood
The ML350 carries a 232-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 engine, while the ML500 comes with a 288-hp, 5.0-liter V-8. Both 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 X5 and RX 330 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. Standard enhanced traction control works while accelerating and when going downhill or uphill.