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FIRST DRIVE

M-Class hits a rough patch

Mercedes' SUV has a host of rivals and no big design changes planned till 2006.

March 17, 2004|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

HOW quickly time passes.

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport-utility vehicle has been on the market since 1998, a date difficult to forget because the media preview of the first Mercedes SUV was so memorable.

The automaker had created a course to test the SUV's mettle: a twisting, steep, mud-and-loose-gravel road along a mountain in Alabama.

With perhaps an inch of "road" to spare on either side of the vehicle, the journey took a sharp left turn and headed up a 60-degree path of goo and slime.

"Don't worry," the Mercedes engineer riding shotgun bellowed when he noticed hesitation in making the turn. "If you don't make it, the trees below will slow our slide down the mountain."

The M-Class made it up the mountain without a detour through the trees. And the M-Class has served its purpose in providing Mercedes owners with a sport-ute to keep them from having to flee the family when opting for an all-terrain vehicle.

But it also has seen a host of new rivals in the luxury sport-ute segment from the U.S., Japan and Europe. As the oldest SUV in the segment without major change, M-Class is showing its age, evidenced by a slip in sales.

Mercedes sold 30,018 M-Class SUVs in 2003, down from 39,680 in '02, more than 45,000 in '01, and 52,000 in '00, its best year on the market.

The M-Class has to weather '04 and '05 before an update will arrive to compete with the Lexus RX330, Acura MDX, Cadillac SRX, BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne and ... well, the list goes on and on.

We tested the 2004 ML350, the version with a 3.7-liter V-6. There's also the ML500, with a 5-liter V-8.

You'd suspect that because the Mercedes numbering system on its vehicles refers to engine size in liters, the V-6 would have been the ML370. Mercedes said that to do so would have been too confusing.

Perhaps the best thing going for the ML350 is the fact that it carries the Mercedes name, a moniker recognized for luxury and refinement. And the ML350 has the luxury and refinement that those with $40,000 to spend have come to expect. For example, it has the Tele Aid emergency satellite communication system that, like General Motors' OnStar, will summon medical or mechanical help and pinpoint your location using the satellite. Service is free the first year and $225 the second; the fee after that depends on the number of years for which you sign up.

There are also little things such as power-opening rear vent windows, a first-aid kit in the hatch lid, power plugs in the dash and cargo hold and a second-row seat that moves forward to increase cargo capacity or back to provide more legroom. A seat back folds down to increase stowage capacity.

Nice touches, but in the next generation vehicle we'd advise some changes, such as moving the power plug under the dash closer to the driver; coming up with a second-row seat that flips and folds forward against the front seat backs for even more storage capacity; and moving the first-aid kit from the rear hatch lid to a location that can be reached more quickly.

The second-row seat features a pull-down armrest, but there's no storage space in it. That would be a nice spot for a first-aid kit, don't you think?

And those who travel in the second row have to put up with high step-in height and the fact that the door opening is so narrow you rub up against the wheel well when getting in or out. Perhaps the door opening was designed by a dry-cleaner operator?

Nice touches include a vast improvement in the novel front-seat cup holders that pop out of the corners of the dash to serve driver and passenger. The first generation holder seemed to have a mind of its own and popped out at will.

The ML350, as noted, is powered by a 3.7-liter, 232-horsepower V-6 that produces 254 foot-pounds of torque. No problems moving away from the light or down the merger lane. Those of a mind that bigger is better -- or who tow a boat -- probably will prefer the 5-liter V-8 that delivers 288 hp and produces 325 foot-pounds of torque. Both are teamed with a 5-speed automatic.

The V-6 is rated at 15 miles per gallon city/18 mpg highway. Hopefully, the '06 ML will add at least 2 mpg to both the city and highway rating, not just to take into account gas prices but also for added driving range.

The ML comes with electronic stability control and four-wheel traction control as standard. The stability control system detects an impending spin or slide and applies the brakes to the slipping wheel or wheels to keep you on your intended path.

The traction control system detects any slippage from a rear wheel when taking off from the light or taking a sharp corner and applies the brakes to restore straight-line traction. Both systems keep you from having to rely on trees to slow your slide down the mountain.

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