Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
When we pitted the 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320 against the 1998 Land Rover Discovery on an off-road mission last spring, we found that on smooth stretches, the poor sloth driving the Discovery couldn't keep up with the big, bad V6 engine humming lazily under the hood of the sparkly-green Mercedes. Give us a boulder-strewn stream to cross and we'll choose the Land Rover every time, but when you gotta have power, the M-Class is at the top of the list.
It seems Mercedes engineers weren't content with their bad boy's engine prowess, though. Reverting to the "bigger is better" philosophy this year, they came out with an engine that has such brute strength, the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee and many other top-notch sport-utes can't surpass it. Placing a twin-spark, 4.3-liter V8 engine with three-valve design inside the 1999 ML430's engine bay was a blatant challenge to automakers who dare to call their lesser SUVs "powerful."
It might be appropriate this year to call Mercedes-Benz "power-hungry," but no one who has driven the new premium Benz sport-utility vehicle is complaining. With its new-generation, 268-horsepower V8 engine mated to a driver-adaptive five-speed automatic transmission, the ML430 roars from zero-to-60 in eight seconds flat, shaving one second off of the ML320's record. For a 4,552-pound hunk of steel, that's impressive.
What is also impressive is the fact that Mercedes' new engine emits 40 percent lower exhaust emissions, boasts 13 percent better fuel economy, is 25 percent lighter in weight, and has a broader torque range than its previous engines. So, let's talk torque. The ML430 offers exceptional grunt at low and mid-range engine speeds. The torque peak of 288 foot-pounds is actually spread over a range from 3,000 to 4,500 rpm. A dual-resonance intake system also helps deliver a quick response to depression of the accelerator pedal. To reduce road noise and bumps, the ML430's chassis includes suspension sub-frames and 10 rubber body mounts. Its independent front and rear suspension is unusual in the SUV segment, providing a smooth, comfortable ride for all passengers. While the ML320 is no slouch in this category, either, those two extra cylinders and 53 horsepower certainly make a difference. Stepping on the 430's gas pedal from a complete stop, you will feel your body pushed back into the plush leather driver's seat with authority. And at 60 mph on a two-laner, you won't have to hesitate when passing slower-moving vehiclesthe 430's engine can take on just about anything out there.
Jeep (now part of the global company known as DaimlerChrysler, which also builds the ML430) also beefed up its new Grand Cherokee this year with a 4.7-liter V8 Power-Tech engine, which produces 235 horsepower @ 4,800 rpm and makes 295 foot-pounds of torque @3,200 rpm. When compared to the ML430's 268-horsepower V8 and wide-ranging torque curve, the Jeep is not much of a threat. The Land Rover Range Rover's 4.6-liter V8 makes only 225 horsepower and the Lexus RX300 is powered by a 3.0-liter V6 with variable valve timingnot much in the way of competition if you're looking at the size of a truck's powerplant. Life lessons have taught most of us that bigger is not always better, though, and that's something to consider.
Certainly the engine is impressiveand good for the environment, to boot. But what about the rest of the vehicle? It's not perfect, but perfection is what people expect from Mercedes. And if power is the most important ingredient in the formula for a big, bad truck, then why did the M-Class come in dead last out of five luxury sport-utility vehicles in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey last spring? A faulty key fob on 10,000 trucks is one reason; cheap-feeling plastic on the interior is another. Still, customers lined up last year to buy the ML320 and the current wait for M-Class vehicles is three to six months. Mercedes has reported sales of 837 ML430s in its second month of delivery and is sure the numbers will continue to rise.
One reason they're so sure is that premium sport-utility sales have risen 120 percent over the past five years. Another reason is their target market. Mercedes executives revealed that they are aiming at the top of the luxury segment with the 1999 ML430, placing the truck in direct competition with the Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover Range Rover. In this segment, trucks are used primarily for carting kids to hockey practice or ferrying friends to Christmas parties. Luxurious, safe on-road travel is what these buyers are looking for, and with the ML430, that's exactly what they'll get.
The ML430 is equipped with every goodie you'd find standard on the 320, as well as leather and power seats, body-colored bumpers, rocker panels and side moldings, and 17-inch alloy wheels with large 275/55R-17 M+S rated tires. Both M-Class vehicles are outfitted with Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Brake Assist and the BabySmart child seat recognition system. A new, four-foot-by-three-foot optional sliding roof will provide open-air fun for both front and backseat passengers at an additional cost of $2,395. Another nifty Mercedes safety feature involves protecting other drivers on the road. The M-Class has lowered bumpers so that it won't cause as much damage to smaller vehicles if in an accident.
Driving the ML430 along the picturesque, winding roads of New England certainly heightened our appreciation of the powerful truck, and it helped us to understand the appeal of a $43,000 utility vehicle whose utility will probably never be tested. At least, not on anything more challenging than the muddy, rutted road that we lumbered down for ten minutes in Vermont's Green Mountains. But who would want to risk their new Benz on such shenanigans, anyway? The ML430 was designed and built with one thing in mindpowerand this newest M-Class arrival provides it in spades.
With power fresh in the minds of Benz engineers, they are preparing to launch the new 2000 ML55 AMG, the fastest sport-utility vehicle ever. It is said to go 150 mph and will cost approximately $80,000. The sport-ute will compete with BMW's soon-to-be-launched Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) but of course, in the M-Class tradition, the Benz will be more powerful.
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