2003 Mercedes-Benz M Class Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marc K. Stengel Marc K. Stengel Editor
February 23, 2003

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“Great news, kids. We're taking a brand new Mercedes M-Class to Texas to see Papa Gene this Thanksgiving.”

“Does it have a DVD player?” Sara asked.

“They're available,” I said.

“But does it have one?” she asked again, pointing to the SUV in the drive. Funny how clear-eyed a sixth-grader can be when her prospects during a 20-hour cross-country road trip are at stake.

I bowed my head and answered, sheepishly, “Not this one, I’m afraid. But we’ll figure something out.”

“Ugh,” she groaned and sidled off.

Mary Elizabeth and Morgan had their own priorities when they heard the news. “Does it have extra seats?” Mary asked. “You mean a third row?” I countered; “well, one’s available.”

“But does it have one?” Mary asked, pointing to the SUV in the drive. I bowed my head again and averted my gaze. There’s something piercing in the look of an inquisitorial high school senior. “Um, not this one,” I had to admit. “But, hey, there's plenty of room in the middle row. And anyway, we need the luggage space.”

Like a funky Motown chorus section, Mary and my 10th-grader Morgan grunted, “Ugh,” in unison and sidled off.

Compact crossing

The fact of the matter is that I was determined to cross the country in as efficient and compact a manner as possible. I’ve been making my share of disparaging noises lately about the appropriateness of all these humongo-SUVs hoarding our road space and swilling our fuel. So to prove a point, and to enlist my happy damn family involuntarily into my scheme, I decided to leave behind a humongo-SUV that arrived unexpectedly for an evaluation and whose name I shall leave to the imagination.

2003 Mercedes-Benz M Class

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Instead, it was over the river and through the woods to grandfather’s house we’d go in Mercedes’ new “efficiently sized” ’03 M-Class all-activity vehicle. What the heck; I could serve as my own Navigator, if you know what I mean. Moreover, I was sure that’s what ol’ honest Abe Lincoln would do if he were in my shoes.

There are several ways to summarize the experience, and the best one originates in the front of the vehicle. The Wife and I both loved driving the ML320, and during our tag-team performance from Nashville to Hawkins, Texas, 10 hours seemed to race by. In rain or shine, in and out of congested 18-wheeler traffic, the ML's highway manners were impeccable. I think of this Mercedes as a spiffy station wagon instead of truck anyway; and I’d happily drive an M-Class anywhere a road can take me — even off-road, in certain instances. This M-B features all-wheel-drive with high and low gear ranges and downhill traction control, so it’s got adequate credentials for crawling around in backwoodsy conditions that don’t require a lot of ground clearance. (For dirtball aficionados, there’s even a “two-foot” mode for modulating brake and accelerator simultaneously in particularly dicey circumstances.)

Seating, climate, and audio are the three magic words for enduring long-distance drives. The ML320 pays attention to all three: front seats adjust six ways; HVAC is automatic and adjustable for driver and front passenger; and the optional ($1250) Bose sound system is powerful and clear. Take significant points off, however, for Mercedes’ band-aid approach to installing the six-CD changer. It’s hidden in the cargo hold, behind a louver that can’t be removed unless luggage is shifted. Then, to gain access, there’s a swing-out armature holding the CD deck that needs its own eight inches of clearance.

Cargo zoom

Just the same, cargo management is another M-Class strong suit. There were 34.7 cu. ft. of deep, wide space to accommodate this happy damn family’s mix of one guy’s bag and four gals’ wardrobes, hope chests, make-up warehouses, blankets, pillows, CD players and laptops. Back in daily commuter life, the ML320’s rear bench seat can fold in mix-‘n’-match permutations for tackling different chores, although the folding mechanisms are a bit cumbersome.

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Then of course, there’s the story from the back seat. Sara, predictably, was sentenced to the middle section for the duration of the 20-hour round-trip. Her constant drone of “ugh, ugh, ugh” provided a soothing, metronomic backbeat behind her sisters’ improvisational riffs of snoring and snuffling. What a tender damn scene, all of them huddled against the world in each others’ arms and laps. More prosaic, but no less heartwarming, is the knowledge that eight airbags — two frontals, four sides and two head curtains — are poised and ready for the unthinkable. In the opinion of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, the M-Class cabin is their “best pick” among SUVs.

Considering how preoccupied they were with the insides of their eyelids, I'm not surprised that Mary and Morgan each experienced a spiritual conversion with respect to the M-Class. “I really liked it,” was their post-travel consensus. “Especially,” Morgan added, “since we didn't have to sit with our luggage.” And Sara? “Ugh.” So there you have it: According to the Stengel Highway Institute for Family Travel, the ML320 rates two “ahs” from the front, and two “oohs” and an “ugh” from the rear.

Yet another perspective on the M-Class story remains to be told, however. Texas, as you may know, is not for poseurs. Despite the convenient coincidence of a giant lone star gleaming from the grille of the M-Class, it’s mostly sideways glances you attract when you’re traveling down East Texas way in a swank Mercedes-Benz. The Wife, of course, blamed it on the flat tweed cap from Scotland that I’m determined everywhere to wear; the kids on my half-lens granny glasses. But I know it’s the truck — or, to be more exact, the almost-but-not-quite-truckish-enough all-activity-vehicle from Mercedes. How can I be so sure? Well, when I pulled up beside that bunch of cowpokes at the gas pump over in Hawkins and got out to fill the tank, I distinctly heard their reaction: “Ugh.”

Need I say more?


The ML320 will be replaced this year by a new ML350, with a 232-hp 3.7-liter V-6 replacing the 3.2, adding 17 horsepower and 21 pound-feet of torque while meeting California ULEV emissions standards. A new Inspiration Edition of the M-Class will be tarted up with special interior and exterior trim, leather sports seats, dark poplar wood trim, 17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels, a painted grille, power seats, privacy glass, and metallic paint. The package will be $2540 on the new ML350, and $1200 on the ML500, which already carries some items as standard equipment.

2003 Mercedes-Benz ML320
Base prices:
$36,600; as tested, $43,160
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 182.5 x 72.4 x 71.7 in.
Wheelbase: 111.0 in.
Curb weight: 4819 lb.
EPA City/Hwy: 15/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, Electronic Stability Control, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Climate control with dust and pollen filtration, burl walnut trim, leather steering wheel and gearshift knob, cruise control, tilt steering column, power windows with express-down in the front, rear wiper, dual heated power side mirrors, outside temperature gauge, Homelink-compatible universal garage door opener and four-way head restraints
Major optional equipment: Dual-zone HVAC, power windows/mirrors/locks, sunroof ($1350), AM/FM/six-CD changer, eight airbags, 17-inch wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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