2004 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D ML350 4WD

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2004 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
Sam Moses

Introduction
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class delivers rugged looks, fine on-road performance, room and utility, with traditional Mercedes design and engineering. The M-Class is available with either a powerful V6 engine or a really powerful V8. Rather than the sedan-style unibody construction used by many of the new-generation SUVs, the M-Class has a separate body on a reinforced frame. It has far more off-road capability than the typical SUV owner will ever use, and it can tow 5,000 pounds.

Moreover, the M-Class has the safe, solid, bank-vault feel that has been a Mercedes hallmark almost since the beginning of automotive time. It comes loaded with the latest safety technology, and more standard airbags than some high-end luxury sedans. Of course, you'll pay a premium for these Mercedes values. You could buy a comparably sized, equally powerful luxury SUV from Acura, Lexus or Volvo with more equipment for less money. However, to millions around the world, the Mercedes brand and values are worth every penny.

The current M-Class is much more refined than it was when it was first introduced. The M-Class got a facelift for 2002 and a more powerful base engine in 2003, so there isn't much changed for 2004. The ML55 AMG, which was once the pavement-burning performance leader of all SUVS, has been eliminated. The DVD-based, satellite-guided navigation system introduced last year on the up-level ML500 is now available in the ML350. Model Lineup
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is available in two models. The ML350 ($37,300) uses a 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 232 horsepower. The ML500 ($45,700) gets a 288-horsepower V8. These prices represent a modest increase of $350 compared to 2003.

As one might expect, the M-Class delivers luxury accommodations. Standard equipment on both models includes climate control with dust and pollen filtration, burl walnut trim, a leather steering wheel and gearshift knob, cruise control, rear wiper, dual heated power side mirrors, an outside temperature gauge, a universal garage door opener and four-way head restraints. Ambient lights illuminate the foot wells on both the driver and passenger side.

The ML500 adds leather upholstery, more walnut trim, rear privacy glass, auto dimming mirrors, a locking drawer under the passenger seat and a GPS navigation system.

The M-Class is one of the few SUVs equipped with eight standard airbags: dual front airbags, front and rear side-impact airbags and curtain-style side head-potection airbags. All M-Class models feature seatbelt pretensioners and automatic seatbelt force limiters, which improve the effectiveness of the belts and limit belt-to-body contact injuries. A child-seat recognition system prevents deployment of the front passenger airbags when an appropriate child safety seat is installed, and the bags know when to deploy at full or partial force, reducing potential for airbag-related injuries. The Mercedes Tele Aid telematic system is also standard equipment. Among other things, Tele Aid automatically contacts help if the airbags deploy or seatbelt pretensioners operate.

The M-Class comes standard with a downhill traction-control system that features a crawl mode for slow descents on steep icy streets, or on rugged terrain off-road. It features an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which can help correct skids, or prevent them to begin with. ESP works with Brake Assist, which activates the brakes with full force when sensors say it's needed, even if the driver hasn't applied the pedal as hard as possible.

The ML's most popular option is the Comfort Package ($2,975), which adds leather upholstery to the ML350, along with remote-linked memory for the front seats, rear privacy glass, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors and retractable outside mirrors. The ML500 Comfort Package ($800) includes memory front seats, rain-sensing wipers and power folding mirrors.

Last year, Mercedes introduced a new appearance package called the Inspiration Edition ($2,540 on ML350, $1,200 on ML500), which includes sport seats with silver cross-stitched Anthracite leather, dark poplar wood trim, charcoal velour floor mats, six-spoke wheels and a silver-painted grille. It's attractive and we really liked it, though we weren't sure we needed the "Inspiration" badges and floor mats. Other similarly priced appearance packages with their own color and trim combos include the Anthracite, Ash, Borneo and Java Editions.

Stand-alone options that will be important for some buyers include bi-xenon headlights ($875) and a power sunroof ($1,350). Leather upholstery ($1,700) and the GPS system ($995) are optional on the ML350.

All 2004 Mercedes-Benz models come with a four-year/50,000-mile warranty, which includes tires, batteries and adjustments for the full coverage period. The purchase price includes scheduled maintenance during the warranty period, and 24-hour Roadside Assistance for the duration of ownership. Walkaround
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is purposeful and compact in appearance, with a sculpted front end and sharply sloped hood. The styling was freshened for 2002 with a new grille, new wheel designs, tighter-fitting bumpers, halogen headlamps with projected beams, halogen foglamps, revised taillight lenses with a single rear fog lamp integrated in the left taillight, and turn signals integrated into the side mirrors.

M-Class SUVs are built with the traditional body-on-frame construction used for trucks. Though heavier and more prone to squeaks than the unibody construction found in most sedans, minivans and an increasing number of SUVs, the body-on-frame design is considered more durable and better suited for towing, and is therefore preferred by many truck buyers. Some initial M-Class build problems, suffered as Mercedes launched its United States assembly plant in Vance, Alabama, are long since history.

The ML500 is distinguished from the ML350 by the chrome trim on its grille and door handles. We like the Appearance Package ($3,350), which adds aggressive lower body cladding and more stylish wheels, but it isn't cheap, is it? Interior
The 2004 ML350 feels like an upscale product. The quality of the interior materials is much higher than it was in the previous ML320 models. The center console, rear console and instrument cluster were all cleaned up and made simpler to view and use. Mercedes added a covered storage area with a 32-ounce cupholder in the console. Overall, the controls are easy to locate, and they work with a soft, satisfying click. The ML500 comes with Mercedes' familiar leather and burl walnut trim, updated with a significant interior makeover two years ago.

There's a traditional Mercedes look to the white-on-black gauges, which turn ivory-on-black when lit at night. The digital clock is intelligently located inside the tachometer, where it can be read easily; an ambient thermometer is located inside the speedometer, although we believe a compass there would be more useful. The compass is on the overhead console, one of six functions on the trip computer, along with date, present and average fuel consumption, miles to empty, and a stop watch. The cupholders that fold out from each end of the dash are the best.

Surprisingly, given Mercedes' focus on safety, there is no warning light when a door is ajar (also true of some of the company's sedans). The cruise control stalk is often criticized on Mercedes vehicles because it's located above the turn signal stalk, and it sets with an upward push. With this design, you can inadvertently set the cruise control when you meant to hit the blinker. During a right turn, for example, your left hand flips the turn signal up and then you turn the wheel. And if your fingers stay extended a second too long, you bump the cruise control stalk and set it, often without realizing it. It happened to us once, and we never knew it until the throttle stayed on when we backed off the gas for a stop sign.

The fully automatic and filtered climate control system uses a large-capacity air conditioning compressor under the hood and six temperature sensors in the cabin to provide efficient and accurate air temperature and flow. Theoretically, that is. We suspect there's some German over-engineering here. For example, in automatic mode, the blower speed is determined by, among other things, a photo diode that measures sunlight on the dashboard. The default temperature setting is 72 degrees. To change it, refer to your 320-page hardcover owner's manual.

You don't have to use the automatic mode, however. There are three big dials to adjust manually. Rings around the circumference of the dials are used to set fan speed, temperature and air direction, but they lack separate settings for each side of the forward cabin. The rear console (with two cupholders) allows back-seat passengers to set their own air speed and flow direction, but not temperature. The rear seat has an automatic setting, too, meaning sunlight on the dash affects blower speed in the back seat. That's high technology at work.

Mercedes' Modular Control System includes the audio controls, and those for the navigation system if the vehicle has it, displayed on a console screen. The on-off/volume button is so small it will be difficult to grip with gloves in winter. There's another small button for both tuning the radio and setting the navigation, which works like a teensy joystick. You can preset 10 radio channels from a keyboard, but there's a learning curve to mastering the system. We've never figured out how to run the navigation system without the radio stepping in uninvited, for example.

There are four power ports in the cabin, front and rear. There are storage compartments all over, though we couldn't find a good place for toll change. We like the grab handles over each of the four doors, although climbing out isn't very difficult, as the door sills sit only 18 inches above the ground. That's a low step-in height by SUV standards.

The seats are firm and relatively flat. We think they could use more side bolstering, especially for the cornering that the ML500 invites. The leather upholstery is thick and sturdy. The seats are wide, though much smaller than those in a Cadillac Escalade, and the driver sits tall above the pavement. The high seats, expansive glass, effective mirrors and fall-away hood combine for decent visibility in all directions and a secure feeling at the wheel. The rear center headrest is a great idea when five passengers are aboard, but it impedes rearward vision.

The rear seat is one of the best in the sport-utility business, though Mercedes has eliminated one of its slicker features. Where it was once three individual buckets that could be folded separately to optimize passenger or cargo space, it's now a more conventional 60/40 split. The seat bottoms are still wide and supportive, and the seats slide about five inches fore and aft, increasing either legroom or cargo space. The optional third-row seats ($995) are best suited for those 12 and under. They can be stowed away to the sides or removed altogether to take full advantage of the cargo area.

With a maximum 81.2 cubic feet of cargo space, the M-Class has more than many mid-size sport-utilities, including the BMW X5 and Infiniti FX, but less than full-size luxury competitors such as the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade. The cargo floor is not perfectly flat behind the rear seats, which can make loading some objects more difficult.

Completely filling the large pocket in the passenger door is a leather packet with all the ML500 printed materials, including that 320-page hardcover operator's manual. Mercedes is not alone in the automotive world in its presumption that anyone who spends this kind of money on a vehicle will learn how to operate it, but mastering the controls will take a lot of learning. Another presumption might be that anyone who spends $50,000 on a vehicle will expect to have its operation made easy for them with simple or at least intuitive controls. In some respects the M-Class suggests that sophistication without complication is a conundrum. Driving Impressions
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class feels smooth and firm and powerful, though it lacks some of the smoothness and agility of some of the car-based SUVs. The ML350 delivers plenty of power from its 3.5-liter V6 engine producing 232 horsepower. It offers more response than the previous ML320. The V6 earns a 15/18 mpg EPA City/Highway rating, just 1 mpg better than the V8.

The ML500 is quicker. With its 5.0-liter V8 engine, the ML500 accelerates from 0 to 60 in 7.7 seconds, which is quite respectable. Top speed is limited to 121 mph, to match the speed rating of the tires. However, the ML500 is thirsty, with just 14/17 mpg in the EPA's city/highway cycle. That's no better than some much larger full-sized SUVs like the Toyota Sequoia.

The flexibility of the ML500's engine is impressive, with its broad torque range and whomping 325 pounds-feet. It works beautifully with the sophisticated five-speed automatic transmission. Floor the accelerator at any speed, and in a heartbeat the transmission downshifts and this 2.25-ton luxury truck gains speed, making quick, stress-free work of passing tractor trailers on two-lane roads. The transmission downshifts so smoothly all you feel is a surge of power, as if a turbocharger were kicking in.

Even better, there's the joy of Touch Shift, which allows manual shifting by nudging the lever to the left or right, with the gear displayed on the instrument panel. The transmission learns the driver's style in the Auto mode, though if you jump on it then back off to, say, make a lane change, it may hold the lower gear longer than you want.

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class vehicles ride smooth and steady, firm but seldom jarring. The handling is good for an SUV this heavy, though it bobs significantly when cornering hard. The M-Class responds to aggressive steering commands without fuss, and the beefy tires are grippy. Still, a driver can feel the truck's weight if he or she yanks the steering wheel, and the M-Class will lean in emergency lane-change maneuvers.

Charge into a corner at the limits of the tires and the M-Class will go into a predictable four-wheel drift. It's prone neither to pushing at the front end (understeer) nor sliding at the rear (oversteer). Of course, the magical Electronic Stability Program controls this loss of traction during cornering, particularly on dirt, gravel or slippery pavement. ESP applies brakes to individual wheels to help turn the vehicle evenly whenever it detects a skid. It was recently revised for a more rapid response.

The steering seems a bit heavy. At slower speeds the steering effort is high, which can make it a bit of a chore in crowded parking lots. You might find yourself turning wider than you intended to because you didn't muscle it enough.

The anti-lock brakes, with massive discs, are impressive, and the pedal feel is as solid as the rest of the truck. The ML500 stops quicker than almost any other SUV made.

The M-Class lacks a hand brake or locking differential, two pieces of hardware that experienced off-road drivers sometimes rely on. But with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, it's capable of traversing terrain that few SUV buyers are likely to challenge. A switch on the dash triggers low range for the full-time four-wheel-drive, allowing the vehicle to creep up and down seriously steep inclines. Meanwhile, the electronic power distribution delivers grip in mud, snow, or on uneven ground. The electronics apply the brakes on wheels that are slipping, and then send most of the power to those that are gripping. The M-Class can creep forward even if only one wheel has a bit of traction. Unlike a Land Rover, however, the Mercedes traction-control system can leave the M-Class sidelined when the grip goes away completely, as on a flat piece of sheer ice. In that case you'll have to switch the traction control off and let the wheels spin to gain a little momentum.

The ML500 performs so well, and its ride and handling are so solid, that only the wealthiest, hard-core, high-performance buyers would want the image-heavy ML55 AMG. Perhaps that's why Mercedes has canceled that version of the M-Class for 2004. Summary
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a fine line of SUVs. While some 4X4s offer chunkier tires and greater ground clearance than the M-Class, and may be more capable off-road, they behave more like trucks on the highway. Other sport-utilities, such as the Lexus RX 330, feel more like a car than the M-Class on pavement. But they offer limited off-road capability. Other SUVs are bigger and more luxurious. But it's difficult to find one that does as many things as well as the M-Class. Nor do many offer safety technology that's as sophisticated or complete.

You'll pay a bit more for an M-Class than you will for some comparably equipped luxury SUVs, but for many there is no substitute for the Mercedes Tri-star.

Model as tested
Mercedes-Benz ML350 ($36,950)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Vance, Alabama
Destination charge
720
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
37300
Price as tested
41560
Options as tested
Inspiration Edition ($2540) includes silver-painted chrome grille, anthracite interior w silver stitching, six-spoke 17-inch wheels, poplar designo wood, sport seats, floor mats, M1 package with power front seats, privacy glass, leather interior, metallic paint; M5 sunroof package with power rear quarter windows ($1350)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Mercedes-Benz ML350 ($36,950); ML500 ($45,700)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage driver and front-passenger airbags, front and rear side-impact airbags, curtain-style head protection airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners with force limiters, ABS with electronic brake distribution, traction control, electronic stability control
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
5.0-liter sohc 24-valve V8
Transmissions
5-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
power windows with one-button operation, cruise control, remote keyless entry, dual heated eight-way power bucket seats, split sliding rear seats, speed-sensitive power steering, tilt steering column, heated outside mirrors, automatic climate control with cabin dust/pollen air filtration system, programmable HomeLink garage-door opener, front fog lights, single rear foglamp, automatic halogen headlights

Engine & Transmission
Engine
5.0-liter sohc 24-valve V8
Drivetrain type
all-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
232 @ 5750
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
15/18
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
vented disc/disc with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist
Suspension, front
independent
Tires
255/60HR17
Suspension, rear
independent

Accomodations
Seating capacity
5
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
39.8/NA/40.3
Head/hip/leg room, rear
39.7/NA/38.0

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
81.2
Wheelbase
111
Length/width/height
182.6/72.4/71.7
Turning circle
37
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
5000
Track, front/rear
61.2/61.2
Ground clearance
8.7
Curb weight
4819

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