WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It’s a lazy summer Sunday. Corn tassels tilt gently on the breeze, cows amble through verdant pastures and a line-up of slow-moving motorhomes snakes along Route 7, the main north-south corridor of the Berkshire Hills. At the helm of nearly 5000 lb of sheetmetal, I wait for the right moment to call on the 342 horsepower on tap of the ML55 to pass the lengthy convoy of rubbernecking sightseers.
After all, I live here and I have work to get done. And, on top of the list is to check out the attributes of the fastest sport ute on the planet. When the window of opportunity opens, I jump through, passing the slower-moving traffic with ease and confidence and notice, in particular, the balance and handling of this vehicle despite its fairly tall center of gravity.
Back in ‘97, people stood up and listened as Mercedes-Benz rolled out the M-Class, one of the first in the wave of luxury SUVs, a new niche of the market that has grown by leaps and bounds since then. During the time that the Alabama-built Benz has been with us, Mercedes has continually updated the vehicle, in part to address quality concerns and equipment updates, but most significantly to enhance the engine department. The most celebrated of these advances has resulted in what this German automaker calls the ultimate SUV – the ML55 AMG, which was introduced as a 2000 model.
Tuned by the Mercedes-owned performance subsidiary AMG, the ML55 houses one of the most potent power plants ever to see SUV duty. The hand-built V-8 makes 342 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque. But, in addition, and what’s really important to safety and performance, is its sophisticated permanent all-wheel-drive system, which ensures plenty of grip, routing power away from the wheels that may have less traction – even if that means sending all the available torque to just one wheel.
2001 Mercedes-Benz M Class
For 2001, the ML55, as well as all other M-Class vehicles, now has an enhanced full-time 4WD system, which has 50/50 torque distribution through front, center and rear “open” differentials to the front and rear fully independent suspension. All new is “downhill traction control” (which operates only when low range is selected and at speeds below 12 mph) which helps maintain traction during steep downhill off-road driving on slick and uneven surfaces.
2001 Mercedes-Benz ML55 interior
Click image for larger view.
Also new is a “crawling mode” (low range must be selected and brakes must be applied along with throttle) for greater precision when ascending steep slopes and traveling over obstacles. Supporting these new technologies is a new active brake booster to give improved pressure to the electronic four-wheel-traction control system.
Serious looks — and horsepower
Styling of the ML55 AMG is familiar, yet more serious than either the ML320 or the ML430. Revised front bumper caps house prominent driving lights flanking what appears to be an upturned bottom lip. Subtle rocker panels and a sportier rear bumper cap contribute more attitude to the ML-Class body, which has been criticized by some for looking too much like a minivan and too little like a rugged off-road vehicle. Well, the ML55 may still not look like a rugged off-roader, but at least its appearance is much less like a minivan, with its more edgy bodywork.
Huge, 18-inch wheels and tires look great in addition to enabling the tall ML55 to hunker down and whisk around corners, as if it was 1/2 its size. New paint colors for 2001 are Desert Silver and Orion Blue Metallic, along with Designo colors Cognac and Mystic Green.
2001 Mercedes-Benz M Class
Similarly, the interior has been spruced up a bit to reflect the added thrust. Dark burl walnut trim covers much of the dashboard area. Charcoal leather and white-faced instruments contribute to a somewhat businesslike driving environment. Bountiful interior space and versatile second-row seats that move fore and aft in addition to folding nearly flat ensure that you can tap into the "utility" part of the SUV equation as much as the "sport."
An in-dash navigation system, TeleAid, is standard now on the entire ML lineup. This sophisticated system provides convenience and emergency services at the touch of a button through a special cellular connection. Four distinct services include an “SOS” button for voice contact to seek emergency services; automatic contact and GPS navigational pinpointing of the vehicle location in the event of an airbag deployment; a ”wrench” service for Mercedes-Benz roadside assistance including remote diagnostic services; and a general information service linking owners to the MB Client Assistance Center. In addition, TeleAid allows vehicle theft tracking, helping authorities locate a car once stolen.
2001 Mercedes-Benz ML55
Base price range: $65,000
Review continues below