2001 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
2001 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Three-pointed stars and 4WD for every pocketbook.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class covers a broad spectrum, starting from less than $36,000 and ranging up to a $65,900 hot rod. The ML320 delivers a balance of the rugged looks, room, security and utility that SUV buyers seek, while the ML55 AMG delivers startling performance.
While some 4X4s offer rugged-terrain tires and greater ground clearance than the M-Class, they behave more like trucks on the highway. Other sport-utilities, such as the Lexus RS 300, feel more car-like than the M-Class on pavement, but offer limited off-road capability. The M-Class strikes a balance many people like, and sports that three-pointed star on the hood that so many covet.
New for 2001 is the addition of the company's Tele Aid emergency calling system as standard equipment on all models. Smart dual-stage front airbags have been employed to know when to deploy with partial or full force. A new downhill traction control and a new crawling mode for slow descents on steep terrain come standard on all 2001 M-Class models. Two new designo Editions bring special paint colors, upholstery and trim to the M-Class lineup for 2001.
Three models are available: $35,800 ML320, $44,200 ML430 and $65,900 ML55 AMG.
ML320 comes with a 3.2-liter V6, while the ML430 comes with a 268-horsepower overhead-cam 4.3-liter V8. The limited-production ML55 AMG comes with a 342-horsepower 5.5-liter V8.
M-Class comes standard with dual front airbags, side-impact airbags that deploy from the front seats, seatbelt pretensioners and automatic belt force limiters. A child-seat recognition system prevents deployment of the front passenger airbags when an appropriate child safety seat is installed.
Inside and out, there's more than a hint of minivan in the styling of the M-Class. It is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood.
Still, the M-Class has traditional body-on-frame construction. Though heavier and more prone to squeaks than the unibody construction found in most sedans and minivans, this design is durable, better suited for towing and preferred by many truck buyers.
Familiar Mercedes-Benz touches are obvious in the M-Class. The seats are wide, yet supportive, with thick, sturdy leather upholstery and more than enough bolstering for SUV driving. There's a traditional Mercedes look to the gauges, with two trip odometers and an ambient thermometer inside the speedometer. With the ML430 come buttons that memorize front seat positions and dark, glossy wood trim.
The M-Class follows the Mercedes tradition of placing two control stalks on the left side of the steering wheel: one for wipers and turn signals and the other for cruise control functions. Mercedes obviously thinks this is proper switch placement, yet it's very easy to hit the cruise stalk when you want to turn on a blinker, even after you're familiar with the distinction. Otherwise, the controls are easy to locate, and they work with a soft, satisfying click. Darker interior colors do better than light when it comes to giving the plastic and vinyl panels a Mercedes-grade appearance.
The M-Class's door sills sit only 18 inches above the ground. That's low step-in height by SUV standards, but the driver still sits tall above the pavement. The high seats, expansive glass, effective mirrors and fall-away hood combine for great visibility in all directions and a secure, confident feeling at the wheel.
The ML430's rear seat is one of the best in the sport-utility business. It's actually three individual buckets that can be folded separately to maximize passenger or cargo space. The seat bottoms are wide and supportive, and the seats slide about five inches fore and aft, increasing either legroom or cargo space.
With maximum capacity of 85.4 cubic feet, the M-Class offers more cargo volume than some compact sport-utilities. But it has considerably less than full-size luxury models such as the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade. The ML430's payback when compared to those competitors is more maneuverability and better on-road performance.
Mercedes upgraded the M-Class interior last year, and it was a welcome change. A leather steering wheel and gearshift knob come standard and the interior is trimmed in real burl walnut.
Mercedes has tried to minimize production costs in the M-Class and longtime Mercedes owners might notice this in several ways. The seat controls are mounted on the seat bottom, rather than in a seat-shaped pattern on the door. The driver's seat can't be moved unless the ignition is on, so a tall driver must reach in and turn the key before moving the seat back. The ML430 has a conventional steel key, rather than the electronic type used in expensive Mercedes sedans, and it lacks separate temperature controls for each side of the forward cabin.
We drove the high-performance ML55 AMG.
You reach the limits of comfort in the handling early, because … well, because it's a truck, and was never intended to do the things it's tweaked to do. AMG might be brilliant, but they're not miracle workers. Making the Mercedes E55 sedan handle like a Porsche, which AMG has done, is one thing; but making a tall box like the ML55 feel like much more than a refined tall box is apparently beyond mechanical expectations.
The suspension and shock absorber changes have dropped the ML55 by a mere 0.6 inches, from 69.9 inches tall to 69.3 (18.0 inches to 17.4 at step-in). Curb weight has been reduced by 167 pounds, which helps the center of gravity, but the ML55 is still twitchy up around the level of your ears. That's the main handling complaint; in fact, ironically, the head-toss might be more noticeable simply because with the stiffened suspension it's sharper. The amount might be less, but it's abrupt. On freeways with bends and imperfect surfaces (the Pennsylvania turnpike comes to mind), the ML55 reminds you that you've indeed gotten something for that $20,000 more than the ML430 price.
Unfortunately that sharpness is reflected in the ups and downs too, not just the side-to-sides. On top of that, you feel many bumps in your elbows, transmitted through the front wheels. You never lose the awareness that you're in a sophisticated quality vehicle, but when you're on a bumpy, winding two-lane with little elevation changes, it's a lot of work to drive.
The wide 285/50R18 Dunlop tires provide tons of grip, which might be part of the overall problem because they'll allow you to corner faster than the rest of the ML55 wants to. And because the ML55 doesn't lean now, thanks again to the tighter suspension, there's no real warning that you're going too fast, other than your own brain. Which might not be enough for some people.
But it's always a gas when you hammer the throttle. The ML55 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds compared to 8.0 seconds for the ML430, thanks to its bigger and more powerful engine: 5.5 liters versus 4.3, 342 horsepower versus 268. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, although even on the Autobahn, we wouldn't want to go that fast in anything that high.
It's the 376 foot-pounds of torque that you love most. Though the big chrome tips under the rear bumper look sexy, the ML55's exhaust is quite muted. The most aural fun you can have is keeping it in second gear and driving hard through slow twisty sections, listening to the rise and fall of the engine's deep Benz growl.
The five-speed 'Touch Stick' automatic transmission is a joy. The Mercedes linkage system is perfectly simple: it starts out in Drive, and if you downshift one time, you've put yourself in the Touch Stick mode. Left on the lever is down, right is up. You're back in Drive when you upshift into it. And there's a digital display on the dash indicating the gear you're in.
AMG has also tweaked the five-speed electronic transmission. The standard Mercedes reluctance to upshift when you're going real slow is still there-a computer decides you either don't want to shift or shouldn't. But the beauty is that when you accelerate to pass, it downshifts so smoothly all you feel is a surge of power, as if a turbocharger were kicking in.
And AMG has outdone itself with the brakes. The ML55 may not improve the ML430's handling the way the E55 improves the E430's, but it does a better job than the E55 with the feel of the brakes. Brakes don't get any bigger than the 13.6-inch front and 13.0-inch rear discs on the ML55, yet nothing about the bomb-proofing can be felt in the pedal.
The ML430 doesn't offer the performance of the ML55, but it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 8 seconds flat, making it one of the quickest SUVs you can buy. (And it costs $20,000 less.) Even more impressive is the 4.3-liter V8's flexibility. It works beautifully with the sophisticated five-speed auto.
Sport-utility vehicles comprise one of the most crowded, competitive segments of the automobile market, and each of those SUVs have different strengths. You can find luxury sport-utilities that are roomier, more powerful or more capable than the M-Class in seriously challenging terrain. But it's much harder to find one that does as many things as well as the M-Class.
ML320 ($35,800); ML430 ($44,200); ML55 ($65,900).
Options As Tested
ML55 AMG ($65,900).
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