Mercedes Benz ML430 (1999)

 

Loved it!

Mercedes ML430What's a Mercedes ML430? Well...take the ML320; switch the 3.2-liter,six-cylinder engine for a larger, more powerful 4.3-liter V8; add a bunchof luxury options, tack a mere $8,000 to the sticker price...and you've gotwhat Mercedes has decided to call the ML430.

The ML430 is awesome in just about every respect. It's remarkably adept inthe snow, and seems to be perfectly in control all the time. It's got morethan enough power. It's very solid and well made and gives you a greatsense of confidence behind the wheel, and the interior is quitecomfortable. You want more? Oh, yeah*there's burled walnut too.

That's not to say the ML430 is not without drawbacks. It still rides likea sport utility vehicle. It's designed to be able to go off-road, andbecause of that the ride is somewhat compromised. No one is going to sufferin the ML430--it's firm, but it's also comfortable--but it definitely lagsbehind the Lexus RX300 in terms of ride. (The Lexus is still the mostcarlike of all the SUVs we've driven.)

Driving Experience

The driving experience was magnificent. The ML430 is a big, burly vehicle,but it has excellent manners. It handles and corners well, displayinglittle of the lean you get from cheaper sport utes. It's got all the poweryou could possibly want, and it's absolutely terrific in the snow. In fact(don't tell Mercedes), we used it to help push a Ford Crown Vic out of asnowbank. Mercedes has thoughtfully designed the bumper height of the MClass so it's the same as that of passenger vehicles. That way, all thoseplebeians' cars won't go under it in a collision. And, as we discovered, aside benefit of this safety enhancement is that you can push other cars too!

One interesting note regarding the ML430's driving experience: Dougieobserved that, because of the slope of the hood, you can't really see itfrom the driver's seat. For that reason, the M Class reminded him a littlebit of driving a minivan. The driver's height was about the same, the viewfrom the driver's seat was about the same and the ride was somewherebetween that of a car and a traditional sport utility vehicle. Of course,it looks a whole lot better than a minivan, and its goes through snowbetter than a minivan, but it's an interesting observation.

Interior

squished in the backseatThe ML430 features plenty of room in the front for passengers, and it canseat eight with the supplied folding third bench seat. In order to fitanyone into that third row of seats, however, you'll need to slide thesecond row forward (the second row of seats is installed on an adjustabletrack). Then the people in the first row will have to move forward to makeroom for the passengers complaining in the second row...and when it's allover, everyone is uncomfortable. So, we suggest you consider the third seatas pretty much a "kids only" area. After all, kids are naturalcontortionists. Think of the ML430 as a standard five-passenger vehicle,with "emergency room" for some extra kids in the back.

Styling

The ML430 has a distinctive, boxy look. That's okay if you like it. Itdidn't particularly fry our burger, but Dougie thought it was better thanmost SUVs. We found the look a little "stubby" and thought that Mercedesmight do well to add about 12 inches to the length. Adding that extralength would not only improve the appearance, it would also give everyone alittle more legroom.

We were shocked to discover that the normally efficient German engineershave made a major oversight in the design of the ML430: the visibility outthe back is miserable. Look in the rearview mirror and you see a veritablesea of headrests, particularly with the extra seat upright. Worse still, ifthe car behind you has a low profile, you'll look right over the top of it.And if it's close to you, you might not see it in the side mirrors either,because of the width of the M Class.

Ergonomics

Ergonomically speaking, we have the same complaint with the ML430 as we dowith almost all other recent-vintage Mercedes models: the cruise control isin a really stupid location. It's right above the turn signal stalk, andit's easy to keep hitting it by accident when you signal to make a rightturn. So the command "signal right turn" can become "signal right turn andkeep accelerating." Most cars have a master on/off switch for cruisecontrol to prevent accidental engagement, and Mercedes should at least havethat. Mercedes should change the design. In our humble opinion, it'sunconscionably dangerous--but we guess they're going to wait for somebodyto sue their stubborn German tuchuses before they change it.

For the most part, we don't like German heat and ventilation controls. Itseems to us that most cars' ventilation systems can be figured out bylooking at the controls. Not so with the high-priced German cars. You'vegot to read the book! And, in the end, it still doesn't work any betterthan a Toyota's heating and ventilation. The ML430 is no exception, thoughwe did get used to it after a while.

the cup holderThe cup holder situation is interesting. First, we should mention thatthey're extremely high-quality cup holders. Top of the line--none of thecheap plastic stuff you see on other cars. But here's the interestingthing: They're at the outside ends of the dashboard. So, if you're driving,you've got to be a left-handed coffee drinker...and a right-handed coffeedrinker if you're a passenger.

It's easy to feel invulnerable in the ML430. It's big and heavy and it hasgreat handling, so you feel totally in control under all drivingconditions: highway, city, rain, sleet and snow. Just because it will getyou moving through a blizzard, however, don't get lulled into the idea thatthe ML430 is going to stop as well as it starts. It does have a new "panicstop" feature that Mercedes is touting. Slam on the brakes, and the car'scomputer senses a panic stop, applying full braking until the vehicle stopsmoving. (We guess that Mercedes' research showed that even in panic stops,people get nervous and don't apply the brakes fully and consistently, soMercedes engineers have taken it upon themselves to apply the brakes foryou--full force--when you initiate an emergency stop. They claim itshortens stopping distances.)

But remember: The computer can't do anything to make the road lessslippery. The unfortunate reality is that, like other cars in this class,the four-wheel drive enables you to go faster than you probably should. Welook at it this way: when Ray drives his Dodge Colt Vista through asnowstorm and starts to fishtail all over the road, that tells him he'dbetter slow down and take it easy. But when you're driving a vehicle thatcan get up to 50 or 60 mph regardless of the conditions, you'll findyourself driving twice as fast as you should. Then, when you try tostop...it's too late. Before you know it, you're swapping paint with theback of Frank's Mobile Jelly Donut and Falafel Stand.

Of course, in the end, if you do wind up in a wreck in this car, at leastthe odds are in your favor, given the size of the ML430 and Mercedes'record for safety. Whatever you do, however, don't look out the window atthe car you slammed into. It's not going to be a pretty sight.

Maintenance

Under the hood, the ML430 is all engine. Normal service should berelatively straightforward, despite the fact that almost nothing isrecognizable under the hood because most of the engine is covered by alarge shroud. If it's given the care it requires, the ML430 should berelatively trouble free for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of miles.The expected cost of parts and repair, however, will be high. Why? Becausethis is a Mercedes...and, as is their wont, they're going to lay a beatingon your wallet for those parts that nobody else can supply.

We wonder, though: do you need eight cylinders in this vehicle? The 430 is$8,000 more than the ML320, and while some of that is other optionalequipment, the ML320 has plenty of power for all but the most wacko drivers.

Overall comments

who should buy this car?Who should buy this car? Anyone who can afford the $45+ grand and doesn'tmind being seen in a Mercedes. In our experience, every time we get in aMercedes, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we're on display. Peopleseem to be wondering, Who's the rich schmuck driving that Mercedes? Like itor not, there's something fundamentally pretentious about a Mercedes. It'san elitist car and it always has been. Maybe their alliance with Chryslerwill diminish that perception, but for the time being it's still just notthe kind of vehicle with which we're comfortable being associated. You'remaking a statement when you drive a Mercedes: "I'm special...and all youother Chevy-driving proletarians had better get out of the way."

Then again, if you have the hots for a Mercedes, don't mind the stares andneed a vehicle that can get through the snow, the Mercedes ML430 might bejust the vehicle for you.

View cars.com model report on this vehicle.


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