2002 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.