Drum roll, please. An all-new entry into the ever-expanding sport-utility vehicle market is now rolling onto the tarmac of America. With more than 40 models being presented by some two dozen makers, the news might seem a rather small splash in such a big pond. The first Mercedes-Benz SUV, however, is a big splash that is sure to cause ripples and rock the boats of many manufacturers vying for sales in this segment. After all, the SUV market has been one of the most rapidly growing arenas in the overall automobile market in the United States for a number of years, and it’s clear that the end isn’t in sight. More than 70 percent of the world’s SUV sales are currently in the U.S. market.
Already rumored to be sold out for '98, the M-class "all-activity vehicle," the ML 320, is a "clean-sheet design" that began as a vision four years ago for the German carmaker whose tristar badge, one of the most recognized in the world, is synonymous with luxury, performance, quality and safety. While the new sport-ute becomes the first four-wheel-drive passenger vehicle in the Mercedes lineup, and the first car it has produced on U.S. soil, Daimler-Benz AG has an offroad pedigree that dates back to its 4WD Unimog power tool and the rugged 4WD Gelandewagen. And, in fact, Mercedes-Benz first established an American plant in the 1980s in Hampton, Va., where MB trucks and Unimogs were built.
"The M class is not sold out," corrected Stuart Schorr, regional communications manager for Mercedes-Benz, admitting, however, that customers could face a wait. "We’re doing everything we can to get more from the factory," Schorr offered, referring to the new assembly plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which will produce 65,000 of the vehicles. "About 35,000 will be available in the U.S. market, and if customers can be flexible, that should minimize the wait," Schorr said.
1998 Mercedes-Benz M Class
"The reason for the popularity of this new product is that it’s a benchmark vehicle at a very competitive price," he said. The new model goes on sale at $33,950 and will compete in the premium car market, which starts at $28,000. Currently, almost half of the premium market is SUV sales. The M-class price is competitive with the segment sales leaders, Ford’s Explorer and Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Borrowing from its heritage, Mercedes-Benz has combined the offroad performance of the Gelandewagen and the sedan refinements and handling of the E500 in the all-new ML 320. The five-passenger model boasts standard front- and side-impact airbags and is the only SUV model to have four-wheel traction control and individual rear seating for three adults. An optional third seat, available in the near future, will accommodate two more passengers.
Outside and in
From the outside, the ML 320 has a distinctive Mercedes-Benz grille and headlamps and a sleek, aerodynamic appearance with an impressive drag coefficient. This means less fuel, less noise and less crosswind. While the exterior appears low and compact with good angles of approach and departure for the backcountry as well as comfortable entry and exit, it will fit 6-foot-5-inch passengers front and rear. There is cargo space of 2,418 liters with split and fold-flat features for rear seating and a rear cargo area that is taller and wider than that of either the Explorer or the Grand Cherokee. The large, one-piece liftgate has an integral handle and a low load height.
The interior is comfortable, quiet and luxurious. Controls are easy to use, and there are standard amenities such as power windows, remote central locking, auto dimming inside rearview mirror and contoured and adjustable seats and head restraints for all five passengers. Each rear seat folds down individually, forming a central tabletop for two or providing a larger cargo area. Both front seats come with standard six-way manual adjustment. There are illuminated visor vanity mirrors, four reading lamps and four cupholders. Among the options are heated power front seats, leather and walnut trim, a power sunroof and a trip computer.
1998 Mercedes-Benz M Class
The driving experience
The new tristar model has full-time four-wheel drive, with a two-speed, electronically controlled transfer case with low-range set of gears engaged by a button shift located on the control panel. It has one of the lowest crawl speeds in its class, an asset for true off-roading, along with 8.4 inches of ground clearance. The new fuel-efficient V6 puts out 215 horsepower and 233 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm and is matched to a five-speed electronically controlled transmission. A V8 model with 5,000 pounds of towing capacity will be available soon.
In addition to the front- and side-impact airbags, safety features include emergency tension retractors for the driver and front passenger with belt force limiters, a rigid, welded-steel body designed to deform and move in ways that preserve passenger-cabin integrity and a carefully engineered crumple-zone structure. Accident avoidance features include rack-and-pinion steering, four-channel antilock braking system and forged aluminum control arms to help reduce unsprung weight for more responsive handling.
Unique in this class are the ML 320’s four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel traction control, which uses data from the wheel-speed sensors of the standard ABS to send torque to the wheels with the most traction. This means that any wheel can push or pull which helps maintain stability on wet or snowy roads. The traction control system senses slipping and brakes the slipping wheels, even when three wheels lose traction. This feature, rather than locking differentials, aids maneuverability and creates no axle binding.
A recent ride and drive provided the opportunity to evaluate handling and performance both on and off the pavement. Unlike many of its peers, the M class truly achieves a unique balance of motorcar pleasure and the truck attributes that have driven buyers in this segment into a sales frenzy. Impressive on the highway are its comfortable ride and its crisp handling, turning radius and responsive yet stable suspension. In the backcountry, its low-range set of gears and traction control system performed flawlessly through mud, over obstacles and up and down steep gradients.
Mercedes-Benz has already made history as the maker of the first car in 1886. The tristar-badged manufacturer has now jumped into the pond of SUV makers. The M class is already a big splash. And it’s sure to cause ripples and waves into the future.