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Mercedes ML

The new Mercedes-Benz ML320 is unlike any other sport-utility vehicle you've ever driven. But it's not unlike every Mercedes you've ever driven. It's a sign of the strength of the upscale sport-ute market that Mercedes has decided to belatedly enter the fray. For years, the German automaker has been content to let the Range Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser grab a few customers who might have otherwise opted for an E-Class station wagon.

But it was not content to see the market for $30,000-plus sport utilities go ballistic and watch hundreds of thousands of buyers shun luxury sedans in favor of plush four-wheel drives. A new plant would be built in Alabama of all places, and it would produce a vehicle that could legitimately be called the Mercedes-Benz of sport-utility vehicles. Good idea, but the vast majority of sport-utility vehicles are based on pickup trucks, which put Mercedes at a disadvantage -- it has no pickups. It does make a rugged military vehicle -- which a bright entrepreneur out West has been importing and selling to trendy Hollywood moguls for $120,000 a pop -- but that vehicle would not easily translate into a sport ute for the well-heeled masses.

So out came the clean sheets of paper and Mercedes essentially reinvented the sport-utility vehicle. The final vehicle is unmistakably a kin to the Ford Explorer Limited or the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, but its design philosophy was so different that the ML320 sits slightly askew to the rest of the market. Which is exactly how Mercedes wanted it. The exterior of the ML320 was sculpted without the typical pickup parameters, so it looks a little different, especially at the back. It's wider and taller than many of its competitors, although the overall length is about midway between a four-door Explorer and a Grand Cherokee.

The rakish back end makes it look much shorter, and more than a few people said it was smaller than they expected. Cargo space, measured in cubic feet, is greater than the Explorer or Cherokee, though that's somewhat deceiving. The Mercedes gets its carrying capacity from its width and height, while the length of its rear cargo area is a little shorter than competitors. Inside, the ML320 is so much like a Mercedes E-Class sedan in its seating and appointments that it's easy to forget what you're driving. The instruments are housed in the same style binacle, with a large tachometer and speedometer offset by smaller gauges for fuel and engine temperature. The center air conditioning and stereo controls are also dead ringers for what you would find in a Mercedes sedan. Ditto the leather seats and the gated automatic shift lever. The only major change for the ML320 is the industrial-strength cupholders.

Overall, the cockpit is roomy and the four-door ML320 -- the only body style available -- can carry five adults comfortably. There also are four air bags on board -- two up front and two for side crash protection. Under the hood, which carries the Benz star in the grille, the ML320 breaks with Mercedes sedan tradition. It uses a 3.2-liter V-6, an all-new engine that is as smooth as the traditional in-line Mercedes sixes, but is far more compact. It produces a hefty 215 horsepower and 233 foot-pounds of torque, which gives the ML320 a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. Going from 0 to 60 mph takes about 9.5 seconds, which is quite speedy for a six-cylinder sport ute. The engine drives all four wheels through a five-speed automatic gearbox that uses open differentials at the front and back.

That's another break from the standard design of a four-wheel-drive sport ute. Rather than using heavier locking differentials to reduce wheel spin and regulate traction, Mercedes engineers gave the task to the vehicle's anti-lock braking and traction control system. The system was less costly to develop because Mercedes already had most of the parts in use on its cars. The ML320 automatically controls traction front and back and, theoretically, the electronic system could deliver all the power to a single wheel, if conditions demanded it. A dash switch shifts the differentials into low, stump-pulling range if needed. Otherwise, the four-wheel-drive setup is automatic.

On the road, the ML320 is the most car-like of the sport-utility vehicles. The fully independent suspension smoothes out just about every possible road imperfection, while providing handling that is not at all tipsy, given the ML320's height. It's also the quietest sport ute I've driven. In a week with the ML320 it wasn't possible to give it any real off-road test -- I looked in vain for a mountain -- but some national magazines have praised its ability to climb over rocks and fallen trees. The last surprise that the ML320 throws at you is its price. Given the cachet the Mercedes name brings to the sport-ute market, the base list price of $33,950 is surprisingly cheap. There are a few Explorers, Grand Cherokees, Toyota 4Runners, Chevy Tahoes and Nissan Pathfinders with comparable window stickers.

Even adding leather seats, a sunroof and a few other goodies raises the price to about $39,000 -- comparable to a Ford Expedition and far less than a Range Rover, Lexus LX450 or Toyota Land Cruiser. The ML320 may not have a rugged truck background like most of its competitors, but it has come to the market with a get-tough attitude.

Vehicle Type:

front-engine, four-wheel-drive sport-utility

Base Price:

$33,950

Engine Type:

3.2-liter aluminum DOHC V-6

Power (SAE net):

215-hp

Transmission:

five-speed automatic with full-time four-wheel-drive

Wheelbase:

111 inches

Length:

180.6 inches

Curb Weight:

4,420 pounds

EPA fuel economy, city driving:

17 to 21 mpg

 

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