2002 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

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2000 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

This 2000 review is representative of model years 1998 to 2005.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 7
Pros:
  • It's a Mercedes
  • On-road ride that's car-like
  • A bevy of safety features
Cons:
  • Quality record hasn't been up to snuff
  • V8 versions are pricey
  • Is this an SUV you really want to take off-road?

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV arrived in 1997, but it still hasn't made it past Lexus or Infiniti in publicized, independent quality ratings. Still, the M-Class is unique in many ways, notably in its safety features and a new, exclusive model that ranks as the fastest production SUV in the world.

You have to hand it to Mercedes-Benz. It was among the first luxury auto companies to respond to U.S. consumer demand for luxury-oriented, car-like sport-utility vehicles. But maybe the company shouldn't have rushed to market so quickly.

The Mercedes SUV, the M-Class, has yet to rise to the top of widely publicized, independent quality ratings. It's a position that can hardly please officials at the German car company, especially since the latest round of J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study results, announced in May 2000, continued to put Lexus and Infiniti at the top of the premium SUV category.

Many pleasing attributes
It's too bad, since the M-Class has a lot going for it. It has one of the most car-like rides on pavement of any SUV on the market. People debate the styling, but it's mostly pleasing, if a bit blockish. The small-for-the-segment, 37-cubic-foot turning circle of the M-Class makes it happily maneuverable in city congestion. Its interior has sufficient Mercedes luxury car cues and features to satisfy a traditional Mercedes follower.

And the list of safety features on the M-Class is truly impressive. In some way, it still outpaces other SUVs. Among the notable items are the standard BabySmart system that automatically detects if a Mercedes child seat is placed on the front passenger seat.

The M-Class includes not only 4-wheel drive but also traction control and vehicle stability control to help maintain proper contact with the road. And it was the first SUV designed and built for crash compatibility with cars.

For many SUV shoppers who put a premium on safety, these kinds of safety items alone tip the scales in favor of the M-Class and away from competitors.

Now, three engine choices
I also enjoy the smooth power of the M-Class engines. For 2000, there are three of them.

The base ML320 uses a competent 3.2-liter 215-horsepower V6, while the ML430 has a spirited 4.3-liter V8. The newest power plant, also a V8, is found in the most-powerful member of the M-Class family—the limited-production ML55 AMG.

Priced at around $65,000, the ML55 is the fastest production SUV in the world, with performance specs that read more like those of a sports car than an SUV. It goes from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.4 seconds. That's equal to the rating Porsche gives for its 2000 Boxster. Top speed of 145 mph. The sporty Lexus GS 400 goes to 149 mph, and Lexus limits the top speed of its RX 300 SUV to 112 mph.

Yet, the ML55 doesn't look that much different from a regular M-Class. Exterior changes include larger tires and wheels, a beefier front fascia and rear bumper, and dual exhaust pipes.

The AMG touch
So how does this exclusive M-Class wind up with the performance stats of a high-end sports car? Those three letters—AMG—tell you. AMG is a German aftermarket firm that for decades modified Mercedes cars for maximum power and performance. For the 2000 model year, AMG worked its magic on the M-Class.

Actually, most of the work is under the hood, where that all-aluminum V8 resides. Mercedes calls it a 5.5-liter engine, though in reality, the displacement is 5,439 cubic centimeters.

Any way you label it, though, this V8 is different in many ways from a standard Mercedes V8, thanks to new engineering and new use of materials and sophisticated parts. Horsepower is cranked up to 342 at 5500 rpm, and torque zooms to 376 lb-ft at 3000 rpm.

Compare this to the 268 horses and 288 lb-ft of torque in the ML430 with 4.3-liter V8 and you can understand why there is an appreciably different feel when driving the ML55.

ML55 loves to move
With the standard 5-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission marshalling the power, the test ML55 zoomed forward from a standstill. As I headed down the driveway for the first time, I reminded myself to be gentle, gentle. At least it wasn't a neck-snapping move forward. The transmission seemed to manage the power smoothly. But there was very little waiting between the time I tipped the accelerator and when the ML55 was propelled forward.

I raced over flat city land without effort and, unless I kept a constant eye on the speedometer, I was way above the speed limit. Even in mountainous terrain, there was little that broke the ML55's stride.

I never hesitated when I wanted to change lanes or dart around a double-parked car. The ML55 had plenty of zip for these maneuvers, even on hills. I always felt as if I had lots of driving options in the ML55, it was that able to respond to quick needs for power.

But the smoothness of the power coming on was what I remember most. No wonder a Mercedes spokeswoman said the ML55 AMG is for "highly driven entrepreneurs."

"It's for someone who would consider getting a Porsche 911 but who needs more room," she said, adding that most buyers will be men and average age will be 40 to 45.

Managing the power off-road
The ML55's power can be a bit difficult to manage off-road, though, when a driver may need to carefully modulate speeds over bumps and through deep ditches. Yes, the ML55 mud can fling the mud impressively when powering through the sticky stuff. However, off-roading in this expensive SUV, if an owner did it, would probably be less of a Baja-style race and more of a steady, studied navigation among the obstacles.

Actually, I wonder how many folks would want to head out for a weekend of off-roading in the wilderness in any version of the M-Class. This is a Mercedes, for goodness sake. Besides, there are bound to be snickers from other, hardy off-roaders who drive Jeeps and Toyotas.

Built to go off-road
But they needn't worry much about the M-Class not being hardy enough out there. Elegantly appointed inside as it is, the M-Class is built to go off-road. It has a full-time 4-wheel-drive system with an electronic traction control system that can brake a wheel that doesn't have traction while differentials direct power to another wheel with traction. There's also a dual-range transfer case that's controlled by a button on the dashboard for heavy going off-road.

As you might expect, fuel economy isn't terrific—on road or off—especially in the V8 models. The ML430 is rated at just 15 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway. The ML55 is rated at 14 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway.

Frankly, I spent a lot of time at my local gas station, putting in the recommended premium fuel, when I test drove the ML55. I never got better than 15.9 mpg on the highway, either.

Little suspension change
All M-Class SUVs have an independent front and rear suspension, and I felt the lower models provided the mainstream ride.

For the ML55, the shocks are stiffer than on a regular M-Class and 18-inch, low-profile tires replace the ML430's 17-inchers and the ML320's 16-inchers. This helps explain why the ride was a bit busier than I expected in the ML55, with quite a few vibrations felt. This was true even on relatively smooth concrete roads.

The ML55 can take curves and corners with some gusto, but with a ground clearance of 7.6 inches, it's still an SUV with a high center of gravity and it can feel uncomfortable in aggressive maneuvers.

Other 2000 model year changes
It's true that the ML55 is the big news for the 2000 model year. But Mercedes made other M-Class changes across the line, too.

The instrument panel is redesigned, bumpers are body color, and the cupholders are more durable. A lot of folks had complained about banging into the cupholders, which are positioned near the front doors at the ends of the dashboard.

The M-Class automatic transmission now includes Touch Shift, which lets you shift between gears sans clutch pedal. And the rear bench seat is split 60/40.

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BB05 - 4/17/2014 2:46:07 AM