1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

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2004 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

This 2004 review is representative of model years 1998 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Aging but decent sport-utility vehicle still holds its own.
Pros:
  • Roomy
  • Fast
  • Good handling
  • Prestigious
Cons:
  • Fuel thirsty
  • Awkward folding rear seat
  • Rather 'trucky' feel

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport-utility vehicle is getting pretty old and competes in an overcrowded market. It's good enough to keep its head above water, although a new-generation model is overdue.

The M-Class arrived for 1997 and hasn't been changed much, except for such things as styling tweaks and a few different engines. The golden Mercedes brand still upstages nameplates such as Lexus and Acura on rival sport-utes.

The latest M-Class is sold as the $37,300 ML350 with a 3.7-liter 232-horsepower V6 and as the $45,750 ML500 with a 5.0-liter 288-horsepower V8.

For most buyers, the ML350 is fast enough, allowing quick merges into highway traffic and safe passing on highways. The ML500 is exceptionally fast, which is why few should lament the fact that the low-volume 342-horsepower ML55 AMG version has been discontinued.

All-Wheel Drive
Both the ML350 and ML500 have all-wheel drive with low-range gearing and downhill traction control for off-road driving. It's unlikely that many M-Class owners go in for tough off-road motoring, which invariably leaves scratches and dents.

The M-Class can take such driving with its rugged body-on-frame design, although all-wheel drive can't match 4-wheel drive for heavy snow and off-road trips.

The engines are hooked to a 5-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift gate. It upshifts smoothly and downshifts with no annoying lag.

Fuel economy is low: The ML350 provides an estimated 15 mpg in the city and 18 on highways and the ML500 figures are 14 and 17 mpg.

Safety Features
Mercedes always has felt strongly about vehicle safety, and that should be good news for the increasing number of safety conscious sport-utility buyers. The ML350 and ML500 are solidly built and have front and rear torso side airbags and head-protecting side-curtain airbags.

Front airbags have an automatic child-seat recognition system that deactivates the passenger-side front airbag. Mercedes' TeleAid communications system provides emergency aid and concierge services.

Rear-obstacle detection systems are becoming more popular, and the M-Class offers such a system for $1,015. That's money well spent because it's often impossible for a driver to see what's behind a fairly large sport utility such as the M-Class when backing up.

Helping keep a driver out of trouble are anti-skid and traction control systems and anti-lock disc brakes with a brake-assist feature for emergency stops.

Comfort and Convenience
Most of the comfort and convenience items found in upscale cars are in even the entry ML350. The ML500 adds features such as leather upholstery, heated power front seats, navigation system and wider tires on sportier looking wheels.

Major options for both trim levels include a $1,350 power sunroof and $650 heated front seats. The $995 DVD-based navigation system in an industry first for less than $1,000. There's no rear-seat entertainment system with such items as a DVD player and headphones.

Good Handling
Both M-Class versions have big 17-inch wheels to enhance handling, which is very good for a tall truck that weighs about 4,800 pounds. Steering is quick and the firm suspension helps the M-Class feel secure during quick lane changes and other sudden maneuvers. Short stops are provided by strong brakes.

The ride is generally comfortable because the M-Class has an all-independent suspension, which isn't found on all luxury sport utilities. However, it is firm enough to give the M-Class a rather 'trucky' feel that you won't get from, say, a rival car-based sport ute such as the Lexus RX 330.

Despite its weight, the M-Class has a rather compact body that makes it easier to park and maneuver, although there's plenty of room in it for four tall adults. It's fairly easy to get in and out, and occupants sit high.

Third Row Seat
A two-passenger third row split-folding seat can be had for $975 to $1,200, depending on the trim level, but it is best suited to small children.

The interior features understated luxury, with such items as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and burl walnut trim. A $1,700 option package is needed to get leather upholstery for the ML350.

Gauges can be quickly read and most controls are generally easy to use, although some will be unintuitive to first-time M-Class owners. The navigation system especially takes time to learn.

Annoying Folding Seat
The roomy cargo area has a low floor for easy loading and unloading. Second-row seats move fore and aft to increase cargo space. Folding the second-row seat forward for additional cargo space calls for awkward maneuvers and lots of patience. That's been a fault of the M-Class since its introduction, which always has been surprising in such a well-engineered vehicle.

While showing its age, the M-Class is a competent luxury sport ute and has Mercedes' typically high resale value.

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BB06 - 9/16/2014 12:31:31 PM