B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
When we got the first pictures of Mercedes' new AAV last year we were thrilled. A muscular shape, aggressive stance, and purposeful Mercedes-Benz elegance defined this vehicle that we prayed would enter production. As the year dragged on, spy shots informed us that the vehicle was indeed slated for production, and that it looked like the basic shape would at least make it to the showroom floor. Well, this vehicle, now dubbed the ML320, hits dealerships on September 21, and we're sorry to say that it looks nothing like the fluidly strong truck that we first saw pictures of over one year ago. Looking like the bastard offspring of the prototype and a Mercury Villager minivan, the ML320's outward visage has left many of Edmund's staff members scratching their heads wondering, "What happened to that beautiful truck we saw last summer?"
Seldom do prototype dreams enter production reality, though, so it's of little use to us to ponder what might have been. No, the ML320 isn't going to win any beauty pageants, but its shortcomings in the swimsuit competition are far overshadowed by its outstanding performance in the talent and congeniality contests.
Designed from the ground up as a unique Mercedes product, the ML320 is a fantastic example of out-of-the-box thinking. Unconstrained by an existing idea of what a sport-ute should be, Mercedes decided to give it many of the best characteristics of both cars and trucks. This means a unique assemblage of technologies not normally seen together, such as: body-on-frame construction with a 4-wheel independent double-wishbone suspension, all-wheel drive that includes a low range, side-impact air bags and a 5,000-lb. towing capacity. No other vehicle, whether car or truck, features such diversity of concept or design.
There are so many features unique to this vehicle that touching on all of them in one road test would be nearly impossible. We will, however, attempt to highlight some of the more important ones. The ML320 is Mercedes' first recipient of its new family of V-type engines. Powered by a 3.2-liter V-6 engine that makes 215 horsepower and 233 lbs./ft. of torque, the ML320 is capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in 9 seconds. A 5-speed automatic transmission is borrowed from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin, and does the work of rowing the truck's gears. This powerful engine is able to report best-in-class fuel economy numbers at 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Nothing to write home about, to be sure, but a darn sight better than the 13.5 mpg that a recent Lincoln Navigator test truck turned in on the freeway! The ML320 uses a three valves (two intake/one exhaust), twin-sparkplug cylinder head design, thus reducing cold start emissions by nearly 40%. This allows the ML320 to be classified as a Low Emissions Vehicle in all 50 states.
In addition to its all-new engine, the ML320 has chassis and suspension innovations that are not often seen in the sport-ute arena. To provide the strength demanded of SUVs, Mercedes has designed the ML320 with a separate frame that is boxed at both ends to provide strength and torsional rigidity. Seemingly anachronistic in a company that so often loads its vehicles with technology, this body-on-frame construction allows the ML320 to tow 5,000 lbs., and it keeps body panels from rubbing during off-road maneuvers. In order that the ML320 posses the ride and handling characteristics demanded by Mercedes customers, the designers in Stuttgart fitted this truck with an aluminum double-wishbone suspension front and rear. Allowing surprisingly quick turn-in and deceptively easy direction changes, this suspension concept will undoubtedly make its way to competing SUVs as customers continue to demand increasingly car-like performance from their 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Mercedes has never been a company to scrimp on safety and their efforts with the ML320 are no exception. Possessing dual front airbags, side-impact airbags (the first-ever application of such technology in an SUV), crumple zones, and adjustable headrests at each seating position, the ML320 is loaded with passive safety equipment. Strangely, though, the rear middle passenger's seat is missing a shoulder belt and has to get by with only a lap belt. Equally important in our opinion is the ML320's full complement of active safety features. Anti-lock brakes stop this truck in a hurry, and precise rack-and-pinion steering lets the driver steer out of harm's way.
Enough with the technical stuff. What you probably want to know is how this thing handles on and off the road. In other words, how does it compare in a market that is saturated with excellent vehicles? The answer, quite simply, is that this is probably the best all-around SUV in the sub-$40,000 price class. It goes faster than any sport-ute except a V-8-equipped Jeep Grand Cherokee, it turns better than anything this side of a Nissan Maxima, it stops with the authority that we have come to expect of German sport sedans, and it has more cargo capacity than the voluminous Ford Explorer. Off-road is another story. Although the ML320 is competent in the muck, nobody is going to mistake it for a boulder-crawling Jeep Wrangler. The main problem facing the ML320's off road abilities is the truck's limited ground clearance. At 8.4 inches at its lowest point, the ML320 is far lower to the ground than the towering 4Runner or Jeep Grand Cherokee. The ML320 also has tires that are biased toward a comfortable on-road ride; the result off-road is somewhat limited traction on mossy rocks and muddy trails. Never fear, however, most people would not think of taking their $35,000 SUV on a trail half as treacherous as the one Mercedes had us successfully negotiate during the introduction of the ML320 in Portland, Oregon. We say without hesitation that it will successfully handle 99.9% of the bad weather/off-road duties thrown at it by its owners.
One of our favorite things about this remarkable vehicle is its well-planned interior. Cupholders that hold more than a 12 oz. can of soda abound, as do handy storage cubbies, map pockets, and a deep center console. Comfortable chairs offer enough leg, shoulder, and headroom to accommodate five large people, and the cargo area will hold an entire week's worth of camping gear without any trouble. The controls for operating the ML320's myriad systems are all within easy reach of the driver, and are thankfully devoid of the pictographic icons that are so prevalent in the design of German interiors. Despite its considerable size, it is easy to pilot the ML320 in a crowded parking lot thanks to the copious amounts of glass that wrap around all sides of this truck. Our main complaint about the interior of the ML320 is the less-than-expected quality of the dashboard plastic and the overly confusing operation required to fold the rear seats down. Other than that, it's hard to tell that you aren't sitting in a tall E-Class sedan.
Mercedes did the unexpected when designing this vehicle. They didn't badge-engineer like Infiniti or Acura, nor did they go after the high side of the market against the likes of Land Rover or Lexus. Instead, they made a novel, competent vehicle that is neither car nor truck that competes directly against the best-selling vehicles in the class like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner. Plant capacity is limited to 60,000 units per year, a good thing for the ML320's competitors, because there is nothing besides this truck's somewhat homely looks that should keep it from becoming the most desired SUV on the market.
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