The U.S. performance-car market seemed to be on the verge of suicide a few years back, with sales of sports cars and coupes falling to untenable levels and large V-8s disappearing due to fuel economy standards. Then some bright marketeers took the popularity and relaxed fuel economy restrictions on trucks and applied the performance-car treatment. The gale of public enthusiasm has blown the sales figures of these highway hulks up into the stratosphere.
Mercedes has a long reputation for refinement and engineering but has never been renowned for its high-performance cars. True, it produced limited numbers of virtually hand-built 300SL models during the 1950s, and it has had some fantastic racing successes, but its day-to-day products built its reputation on engineering and elegance. During the same time, BMW, Porsche, Audi and even VW have built reputations based on sporty models.
To get a sportier image, Benz has called upon its most successful aftermarket modifier, AMG. For about 30 years, AMG (now owned by DaimlerChrysler) has produced unofficial performance versions of most Mercedes products. With the popularity of sport-utility vehicles, it was only natural that the ML430 V-8 should get the AMG treatment.
Sizzling SUV power….?
Do we really need a 342-horsepower sport-ute that rides on 50-series 18-inch tires, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, and reaches a top speed estimated around 145 mph? The public says yes.
Most SUV buyers at least try to convince themselves they'll be going off-road, but that is one thing that you'll have to put on hold with the ML55. Its forte is handling treacherous conditions, and with the addition of the proper winter tires, it will be great on ski trips. But don't take it into the boonies with these thin-walled performance tires. It can be embarrassing walking out of the woods after sticks and rocks rip your tires apart.
2000 Mercedes-Benz M Class
ML55 buyers will enjoy scooting down twisting roads and moving five people in comfort and luxury. Traction control, stability control and ABS with Brake Assist keep the top-heavy SUV under your command, rather than fate's. With four-wheel drive and 8.4 inches of ground clearance, it can perform the same tasks as a standard M-Class, but at a price tag almost double that of an ML320.
Keeping with the Teutonic attitude favoring understated styling, the ML55 has discreet cues, such as a power-domed hood; modest add-on body cladding; red brake calipers; chrome-accented grille; and muscular, 18-inch five-spoke wheels that communicate the proper level of quiet elegance to onlookers. This is complemented by lots of black — grille, side window moldings, front windshield molding, rear window molding and door handles.
The interior is equally restrained, with supple charcoal leather sport seats, walnut steering wheel and burled walnut wood trim. The ML55 instrument cluster sports chrome-ringed gauges with white analog faces. The Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) center controls the navigation, audio, integrated telephone and trip-computer systems, and, while capable, can be intimidating. Side airbags are standard in front and rear doors, and a BabySmart system detects the presence of a right front child safety seat and deactivates the airbag.
This is the first of many new products extending the high end of the SUV category. The ML55 is powered by an AMG-modified 5.5-liter version of the new-generation Mercedes-Benz V-8. The engine is teamed to the company's electronic five-speed automatic transmission, which adapts to an individual's driving style.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class full-time four-wheel-drive system requires no driver intervention and does not use locking differentials to maintain traction on slippery or loose surfaces. Instead, it uses an electronic traction-control system that works on all four wheels.
M-B's Electronic Stability Program (ESP) has been tuned to adapt to the tires and suspension, but can restrain spirited driving. Unlike other stability-control systems in performance cars, this ESP is rather heavy-handed. The ESP senses impending loss of control and momentarily applies the brake on one wheel and/or retards the throttle to restore stability, but does not allow feathering or driving while slightly out of shape.
AMG is entrusted with running the company's GT racing effort. With the AMG-built CLK-GTR racecars, Mercedes-Benz captured the FIA-GT championship two years in a row. The M-Class features independent front and rear suspension. AMG modifications to the brakes and suspension that ensure the ML55's handling dynamics and safety match its tremendous performance potential.
The ML55 has stolen the march on its competitors, as BMW, Audi, Porsche, Jaguar and even VW (again!) are planning their own sporty utes. The winds blowing lovers back up cliffs may be from trucks streaming through the curves of American hills.
|2000 Mercedes-Benz ML55
Major standard equipment:
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