1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

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2002 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

This 2002 review is representative of model years 1998 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Improvements keep this vehicle among the most desirable sport utes.
Pros:
  • More power
  • Better styling
  • Rugged both on- and off-road
Cons:
  • Low fuel economy
  • Narrow rear doorways
  • Awkward folding rear seat

It takes more than a prestigious name to keep an upscale sport-utility vehicle a strong contender, so the Mercedes-Benz arm of DaimlerChrysler has given its latest M-Class key improvements.

People stared enviously at the M-Class and buyers waited in lines for this chunky-looking truck when it arrived for 1998. No sport ute, except perhaps the venerable but overrated Range Rover, could outdo it for snob appeal.

After all the M-Class was the first mass-produced Mercedes sport utility. Few buyers probably cared that it also was the first American-made Mercedes, built at a new Alabama plant.

More than 320,000 M-Class vehicles have been sold worldwide. But things have moved so fast in the sport-ute market that the 2002 model gets everything from revised styling to a more powerful V8 and added safety features to keep it at the top of the desirability list.

Off-Road Prowess
Unlike car-based rivals such as the Lexus RX 300, the M-Class is an authentic sport ute with rugged body-on-frame construction and sparkling off-road prowess. Still, it feels more trucky than car-based sport utes on roads despite its all-independent suspension, which is not common in the tough-truck market.

The base $36,300 ML320 has a 3.2-liter 215-horsepower V6 that provides decent acceleration. But you go much faster with the new $44,950 ML500; it has a 5.0-liter 288-horsepower V8 that replaces last year's smaller 268-horsepower V8 in the discontinued ML430 model.

The ML500 also features leather upholstery and sharper handling, although its stiffer suspension and lower-profile tires result in a less comfortable ride.

At the top of the line is the $65,900 hot-rod ML55, which has 342 horsepower and comes from Mercedes' AMG high-performance unit. It's for those who simply must have one of the fastest prestige sport utes (0-60 mph in 6.4 seconds). The ML55 has a more high-performance suspension and even wider, lower profile tires than the ML500.

Poor Fuel Economy
All M-Class gets poor fuel economy. The ML320 provides an estimated 15 mpg in the city and 19 on highways, while the two V8 trims deliver an estimated 14 city, 17 highway. I could never attain city figures that high even during moderate driving with these sport utes, partly because they're all over 4,500 pounds. Figure on 11-14 mpg in the city.

The M-Class still looks conservative because Mercedes builds conservative-looking cars. Besides, you can't really expect a genuine, practical sport ute to have a rakish appearance.

More Stylish
However, the new M-Class does look more stylish—or at least more aggressive—thanks to new bumpers, a redone tailgate panel, more aerodynamic mirror casings and different headlights and taillights. Many automakers are successfully using headlights as a styling device, and they can help make a front end look appreciably different.

Wheels always have gone a long way toward making a car or truck look sportier, and thus the new M-Class has redesigned 17-inch wheels.

Mercedes traditionally has been safety conscious. In fact, safety long has been a Mercedes passion. So the 2002 M-Class adds side-curtain airbags that span both sides of the vehicle to protect head and shoulders in a side collision.

Updated Interior
Not stopping with outside appearances, Mercedes has given the latest M-Class an updated interior. It contains new console controls, framed by burl walnut trim—the real stuff, not simulated wood. There also are new automatic climate controls and redesigned second-row ventilation controls. And the center console conceals an extra compartment beneath its roll-top cover.

The M-Class isn't small but has a pretty compact body that doesn't call for endless searches for long parking spots.

Fun to Drive
Importantly, this sport ute is fun to drive. Steering is rather heavy but has a reassuring feel and is quick. Handling is quite good, and there is nice brake pedal feel. Mercedes' Brake Assist feature reduces stopping distances in emergency situations.

All M-Class models are well-equipped. They have a nicely engineered all-wheel-drive system that doesn't call for driver involvement and can propel the vehicle even if three wheels have entirely lost traction.

Mercedes always can be counted on for advanced technology, so even the M-Class' 5-speed automatic transmission gets new software to allow better manual shifting for drivers who don't want to leave it in the Drive slot all the time.

Tee Times
Also, M-Class models have an advanced stability control/anti-skid system. Their Tele Aid telematics communications package has emergency aid and Concierge services that include getting tee times for more than 300 golf courses.

For serious off-roaders, a downhill traction control feature helps maintain grip during steep downhill off-road driving, where surfaces are loose, slick, uneven and rutty.

While rather easy to enter, the M-Class lacks a decent grab handle for an elderly right-front passenger to grasp when getting in or out. Also, rear door openings are rather narrow. The M-Class is generally roomy, but a tall person behind a tall driver with his seat moved comfortably back needs more legroom.

An optional two-passenger third-row seat is offered, except for the ML55.

Seat Support Needed
There is a typical no-nonsense German interior, with easily read gauges and good controls. But, curiously, the front seats of the ML320 and ML500 need more side and thigh support. There's noticeable road noise.

A low, wide opening helps allow easy loading of the large cargo area. But folding the second-row seat forward to get more cargo room is a chore—an ongoing fault of this vehicle.

Some rival sport utilities are more comfortable during on-road driving. But the M-Class has high resale value and never will lose its snob appeal, which is worth a lot to many buyers of upscale sport utes.

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BB03 - 7/22/2014 2:31:45 AM