What's New for 2001
The TeleAid emergency calling system is now standard on every M-Class model, and smart dual-stage front airbags know when to deploy with partial force or full force. All models also feature expanded off-road capabilities with new downhill traction control and a new crawling mode for very slow and steep off-roading. Finally, a new M-Class sport package debuts this year.
Since it's the M-Class' introduction, Mercedes has made constant improvements to it, upping the feature content and performance, improving its looks and addressing the build-quality issues that plagued early models.
The base ML320 is powered by a peppy 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 while the upscale ML430 offers an authoritative and advanced 4.3-liter V8 that makes 268 horsepower. The truly brutish AMG-designed ML55 manages 342 horsepower from its massaged 5.5-liter V8. All engines are mated to a driver-adaptive five-speed automatic with TouchShift control for manual shifting.
New this year is an expanded full-time four-wheel-drive system that offers 50/50 torque distribution through the M-Class' front and rear fully independent suspensions. A new downhill traction control system (no doubt inspired by BMW's Hill Descent Control available on that company's X5 SUV), which maintains a low vehicle speed when descending steep grades with loose footing, is accompanied by a new "two-foot" crawling mode that has the same effect as applying the brake while climbing a steep hill. This mode can be engaged when the M-Class is in low range and is traveling under 3 mph to maximize traction. Contributing to these new off-road maneuverability improvements, an active brake booster builds pressure assistance faster, allowing spinning wheels to be slowed with quicker response.
In addition to advanced drivetrain technology, safety features such as TeleAid, traction control, stability control, ABS, dual-stage "smart" airbags and 24-hour roadside assistance offer safety on par with Mercedes' best sedans. In fact, the M-Class is so crashworthy that the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety even rated it as the "Best Pick" in the SUV class in terms of occupant protection.
But don't buy this SUV just for safety reasons. The interior of the base ML320 features such niceties as leather and burl walnut trim, while the 430 model gets standard GPS navigation, 17-inch wheels and leather seats. A third-row seat can be had in either model, and a new sport package, with unique body cladding, integrated foglamps, a chrome exhaust tip and 17-inch alloy wheels, is available to curtail some of the ML's "minivan" look. If the sport package still isn't sporty enough, consider the ML55, which includes a powerful V8 engine, 18-inch wheels, a power dome hood and red brake calipers.
Blend these safety features with its solid performance on pavement and in the slippery stuff, along 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 even with this year's drivetrain improvements, true off-road aficionados will want to shop elsewhere for wheels. The M-Class, despite its boxed frame and four-wheel drive, is much more suited to Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway than scurrying across the Continental Divide.