Now in its fifth year, Mercedes' M-Class SUV faces significantly more competition than it did when it debuted. Back in 1998, all the ML320 had to worry about in the midsize luxury SUV category were the Infiniti QX4 and the Land Rover Discovery. But now, there are also the Lexus RX 300, Acura MDX and BMW X5 battling for country club supremacy.
Although the first M-Class effort was generally well-received, it did have some problems. Specifically, reliability was not up to Mercedes standards and some of the switchgear, such as the turn signal and wiper control stalks, felt as if they were sourced from a Cracker Jack box. But since then, Mercedes has improved the truck and introduced V8 versions, as well, in an effort to stay in the thick of the luxury-ute hunt.
Mercedes-Benz recently invited the automotive press to preview its 2002 lineup. The event took place in picturesque Durham, N.C., and one of the vehicles we spent some time with was the ML500.
The first V8 M-Class was the ML430, which debuted in 1999 packing a 4.3-liter three-valve-per-cylinder V8 that sent 268 horsepower and 288 pound-feet of torque to the wheels. The muscle-bound 342-horsepower ML55, massaged by in-house tuner AMG, was introduced a year later.
For 2002, the ML430 becomes the ML500 due to an increase in engine size from 4.3 liters to 5.0 liters (hence the 500 name). As expected, there is more power with the larger engine, 288 horses and 325 pound-feet. This considerable thrust, touted as the most in its class by Mercedes-Benz, is handled by a five-speed automatic gearbox with driver-adaptive technology and Touch Shift automanual control. The driver-adaptive feature adjusts the transmission's shifting to the driver's style, meaning an aggressive pilot will get higher rpm upshifts while a more laid-back driver will get earlier, more fuel-efficient upshifts. The Touch Shift feature allows manual-style shifting by bumping the lever to the left of the "D" position for downshifts and to the right of it for upshifts.
In addition to the upsized V8, the ML500 has subtle, but worthwhile changes in and out. Borrowing the chrome-highlighted grille from the ML55, the ML500 also sports revised front and rear bumpers and light clusters. It takes a sharp eye to spot the changes other than those grille bars, but look closely and you'll see that there are now clear-lens headlights, turn signals integrated in the side-view mirrors, and resculpted bumpers with fog lamps mounted up front. The ML320 incorporates the same updates less the chromed grille accents.
If that ain't stylin' enough for you, a Sport package adds a bit more pizzazz with fender flares, different bumpers with honeycomb inserts, a chrome exhaust tip and six-spoke 17-inch alloys that fill out the wheelwells with the help of 275/55R17 rubber.
Inside the cabin, a number of functional and aesthetic changes were made to bring this rig further upscale. New climate controls feature an automatic function (single zone) and vents for rear seat passengers. Also, the power windows were relocated next to the gear-shift quadrant.
In tribute to Americans who can't live without their Starbucks, the front cupholders were improved. When the Mercedes representative boasted that the cupholders could now handle a 7-Eleven Big Gulp, I would have been embarrassed for him and Mercedes, were it not for the fact that I could appreciate that huge engineering advance.
Once we were familiarized with the ML500, we hit the road. For a vehicle that tips the scales at nearly 5,000 pounds (4,874 to be exact), the ML500 felt lighter due to its strong performance. Boot the throttle, and the ML scurries forward, the blurring landscape accompanied by the V8's rising but still subdued growl. Mercedes claims that the ML500 will sprint to 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds, and the seat of my pants had no reason to dispute that. Speeding up to merge onto the freeway or to pass dawdling motorists is no sweat, as the ML possesses a healthy midrange punch, as well. Working in concert with the V8, the seamless automatic gearbox did such a good job tailoring its shift points to my (read: performance-oriented) driving style that the only time I touched the Touch Shift was when curiosity struck.
Taking the power to the street (or horrors! trail) is the ML500's all-wheel-drive system, which has the ability to automatically send the power to the wheels (or even a single wheel) with the best grip. Additionally, there is a low range and the electronic traction control has a feature that automatically (in low range) keeps the speed down on steep and/or slippery descents. We were unable to test the enhanced AWD system off-road, so four-wheeling impressions will have to wait until we do a full test on the ML500. Considering that most M-Classes will never set a tire off the blacktop, this was not a big concern.
On road, be it curvy two-lane or high-speed freeway, the ML500 acquits itself handsomely. As we maneuvered along some twisty blacktop, the Benz felt reassuringly composed and devoid of any tippy feeling that one would expect from a vehicle that looks like it would have a phone booth's center of gravity. Credit must go to the ML's four-wheel independent double wishbone suspension (with stabilizer bars fore and aft) that did a fine job keeping body roll in check. Feel from the wheel was mixed; it had decent weighting but could use some more feedback. A firm but comfortable ride should please the target market for the ML500 folks who will primarily be using the vehicle for commuting, shopping and road trips.
Freeway performance is impressive. Running down the Interstate, the ML500's powerful V8 sent it effortlessly down the road at 75 mph or so, with plenty in reserve. Wind and road noise, two typical bugaboos of an SUV, were well muted in the Benz, as befitting a vehicle that is expected to function as a luxury car as well as an SUV. And when it came time to haul it down, the substantial brakes (with rotors measuring around 13.5 inches front and rear) were strong in action and easily controlled through a pedal with a firm but progressive feel.
With excellent on-road dynamics, plenty of safety equipment (including side curtain airbags and stability control), an inviting cabin and several key improvements for 2002, we'd say that Mercedes-Benz has done an admirable job at keeping the ML500 competitive in this insanely popular market segment.