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With this year's improvements to the cabin ambience, Mercedes shows it can admit and fix its mistakes. Still, the M-Class is more of a luxurious and versatile all-weather vehicle than it is an off-road terror.
Lots of interior space, quite comfortable, carlike ride and handling, excellent snow vehicle.
Poor reputation of build quality, looks like a minivan, not particularly adept off-road.
Available M-Class Models
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All M-Class models get an interior facelift available in one of three new colors, optional third-row seating and a Touch Shift automanual transmission. ML320 buyers get body-color bumpers and trim, real walnut inside, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, revised interior fabric, seatback map pockets and footwell lamps. In addition to these items, a standard navigation system, high-grade leather, and heated seats come on all ML430s.
Though a runaway sales success, Mercedes-Benz did not hit the bull's-eye with the M-Class sport utility when it was introduced in the fall of 1997 as a 1998 model. The Alabama-built SUV had buyers lined up for months and demand was greater than supply for a long time. But the quality of the vehicle, in terms of the bits and pieces and the way they were assembled, didn't meet the standards of the company or the wealthy clientele that bought them in droves. The vehicle landed last on J. D. Power quality surveys, an embarrassing standing for a German engineering firm that had prided itself for years on vault-like construction and impeccable quality.
The ML320, powered by a peppy 3.2-liter V6 and equipped with drab, gray bumpers and body trim, was priced to steal buyers of loaded Grand Cherokees and 4Runners, though most of the good stuff like leather and wood and everything that makes a Mercedes a Mercedes was optional. Prices for the ML320 rose easily into the low 40s well equipped. The SUV took hits from the public and media for resembling a minivan and performing about as capably as one off-road, but Mercedes knew that if they built them, buyers would come.
In 1999, Mercedes added standard equipment like Electronic Stability Control, Brake Assist, and BabySmart to the ML320 and introduced the opulently outfitted, V8-powered ML430. With a 268-horsepower 4.3-liter motor under the hood and 17-inch tires at each corner, the 430 leaned toward the sporting end of the SUV spectrum. Fast and good-looking with body-colored bumpers and exterior trim, the 430 was a big improvement over the pedestrian 320.
For 2000, Mercedes has improved the recipe once more. All M-Class models get an interior facelift available in one of three new colors in an effort to silence critics who've called the cabin cheap. Optional third-row seating bumps passenger capacity to seven and a Touch Shift automanual transmission makes driving the M more fun. ML320 buyers get body-color bumpers and trim so neighbors don't immediately surmise that they couldn't afford the V8. The 320 also gets real walnut inside, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, and other goodies for improved ambiance. In addition to these items, a standard navigation system, higher-grade leather, and heated seats come on all ML430s for 2000.
M-Class is equipped with a four-wheel independent double-wishbone suspension for superior on-road ride and outstanding maneuverability. Fast-acting ABS, combined with both traction and stability control, make the M-Class unstoppable in the snow. Blend this inherent ability on pavement and in the slippery stuff with the M's cavernous 80.2 cubic feet of maximum cargo space and long list of standard equipment, and the ingredients for a perfect luxury sport-ute are in place. But true off-road aficionados will want to shop elsewhere for wheels, because the M-Class, despite its boxed frame and four-wheel drive, is much more suited to Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway than a two-track draped across the Continental Divide.
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