What's New for 2002
The ML430 is replaced by the ML500, which has a 5.0-liter V8 packing 288 horsepower. Over 1,100 parts of the truck have been modified, but the ML's exterior remains largely the same. New bumpers, clear-lens headlights and revised side mirrors are the most noticeable exterior changes. Inside, the center console sports a new look, and wood grain trim becomes standard on all models. A new automatic climate control system is now standard, and rear-seat passengers get dual cupholders and separate ventilation controls.
Since 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.
This year, new side-view mirrors with integral turn signals debut, as do clear lens headlights, chrome grille accents, front fog lamps and revised front and rear bumpers. Inside the cabin, vents are added to the rear of the console and electronic push buttons replace the old twist knobs on the climate control system.
Power underhood ranges from the ML320's peppy 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 to the stormin' 5.5-liter 342 horse V8 in the AMG-tweaked ML55. In between these two sits the new ML500, in essence, last year's ML430 with an authoritative and advanced 5.0-liter V8 that makes 288 horsepower -- 13 more ponies than the 4.3 that formerly resided under the hood. All engines are mated to a driver-adaptive five-speed automanual with TouchShift control for manual shifting.
Last year, two new features were introduced to improve off-road prowess; a downhill traction control system and a "crawling" mode. The downhill traction control system maintains a low vehicle speed when descending steep grades with loose footing by automatically applying the brakes. The crawling mode brings both traction control and ABS into play to maintain traction during especially technical climbing situations where the driver would be simultaneously feathering the brakes and the throttle. Both of these features operate only when "low" range is selected and speeds are under 12 mph (when descending) and under 3 mph (when ascending).
In addition to advanced drivetrain technology, safety features such as TeleAid (which will alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys and can also put you in touch with a live operator to summon medical or police assistance), 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 automatic climate control and burled walnut trim, while the 500 model gets standard GPS navigation, 17-inch wheels and leather seats. A third-row seat can be had in either model. And to dress up the exterior there is a Sport package that features unique body cladding, a chrome exhaust tip and 17-inch alloy wheels. If the Sport package still isn't enough, consider the ML55, which includes that ripping V8 engine, 18-inch wheels, a power dome hood and red brake calipers.
The M-Class' combination of cutting-edge safety features, commendable on-road performance, plentiful creature comforts and 80.2 cubic feet of maximum cargo space make for a near-perfect luxury SUV.
But even with the recent drivetrain improvements, hard-core 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 the highway than to the Himalayas.