Last year Americans displayed a nearly insatiable appetite for sport-utility vehicles. And with a dizzying array of makes and models available, the sport-ute arena was looking rather crowded. But apparently not crowded enough, as Mercedes-Benz has entered the fray with its new sport-ute, the purpose built M-Class. We had a quick look at it earlier this summer and were quite impressed. And now we’ve finally had a chance to spend some quality time with the ML320 and provide an absolute answer to the question that everyone is asking. Can the Silver Star be as successful off the road as it is on?
Well, with the Mercedes-Benz ML320 sold out for the rest of the year at just about every dealer in the country, we think predictions of success are pretty safe. And it’s only the promise of next year’s V8-powered ML420 that keeps the line from getting even longer.
Mercedes fans have taken to the M-Class in a big way. Partly because its Made-in-the-USA status made possible a base price of well under 35 grand. And, partly because it’s a pretty big sport-ute.
The body-on-frame wheelbase is 111 inches, with an overall length of 180.6 inches. That’s 3 inches longer than a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and 8 inches shorter than a Ford Explorer, the two domestic SUVs that dominate the mid-size class.
Styling, however, has a softer, import flavor, with teardrop headlights and rounded fenders. But, the 3-pointed star sits inside a fragile looking plastic grille that wouldn’t survive a fast-moving squirrel, let alone a truck bumper. The rear quarters are short, rounded, and make the ML320 look trimmer than it is in reality.
The interior is oversized, with seating for five adults plus plenty of luggage in a luxury setting familiar to any Mercedes-Benz owner. As are safety features, like standard front and side impact air bags. The dash offers the familiar Teutonic efficiency of every Mercedes product, though the utilitarian interior plastics clashed with our car’s optional walnut trim.
Also included in our M1 option package were heated leather seats, with eight-way power adjustments, lockable storage under the seats, and a trip computer. Entry is easy, with a low step-up. And once in, the seats are firm but supportive, like those of a Benz should be. The only omission is no power seat controls on the doors.
The large analog gauges, as well as controls for both stereo and ventilation, are straightforward and perfectly placed. Cupholders are cleverly hidden in the dash ends, but are too shallow for more than a soda can. More useful were the power points both front and rear.
The rear seat itself offers exceptional room, especially head room. And the three seats fold individually, to expand the already substantial and very flat cargo floor. Maximum volume is 85.4 cubic feet. That’s more than an Explorer and plenty for a third row seat option due later.
V8s are the coming rage in sport-utes, but the ML’s 3.2-liter V6 is no slouch. It makes 215 horses, and 233 pounds-feet of torque, fed through a ZF 5-speed automatic transmission, and to a full-time Borg-Warner four-wheel drive system, with push-button low range.
On pavement this drivetrain pushes the 4,200-pound ML320 to 60 in 9.2 seconds. And through the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 83 miles per hour. Respectable, but not exceptional. Power was best over 4,000 rpm, so torque fiends may want to wait for the V8.
But everyone should be immediately pleased with the M-Class handling. The all-independent suspension delivers the best control of any sport-ute. Front plow was mild, and body roll well contained. While the power rack-and-pinion steering delivered reasonable feedback and a heavy feel. Braking was also par for the Mercedes course. Stops from 60 averaged 133 feet, thanks to standard anti-lock-equipped 4-wheel discs.
Highway ride was quiet and amazingly smooth, again the best in its class. And the off-highway ride was comfortable as well, due to ample wheel travel and not-too-hard springs. While 8.4 inches of ground clearance, and the industry’s first 4-wheel off-road traction control system, allowed the ML to climb over obstacles that would ground many competitors. Though we don’t expect to see many ML320s driven on anything rougher than a gravel parking lot.
But with a base price of only $33,950 for a luxurious Benz-badged off-roader, our loaded test car totaled $39,065, we do expect to see it selling well for quite a while.
After all, there’s a lot to like. We applaud the very competitive price, superior ride and handling, huge well-designed interior, strong off-road capabilities, and the fact that it lives up to the lofty Mercedes reputation.
Less tempting was the soft exterior styling, utilitarian plastics inside and out, and small cupholders.
And while we like the ML320 a lot, our friends at Automobile Magazine were even more enthusiastic, stating simply that: “We’d have one in a second.” While the folks at AutoWeek said: “Arguably, one of the best truck-like ground-up sport-utes in a segment that has seen luxury badges put on cruder vehicles.”
Indeed Mercedes is alone among prestigious car brands to engineer a sport-ute from the ground up, let alone do it in America. The fact that the effort is so outstanding is indeed impressive. Then, to take on the mainstream of the market, not just Land Rover and Lexus, shows how forward thinking this old-line marque has become. The 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320 will undoubtedly be a roaring success. Not just because of who made it, but because it should be.
Engine: 3.2-Liter V6
Torque: 233 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 9.2 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.9 Seconds @ 83 MPH
60-0 MPH: 133 Feet