Mercedes ML430(2001)

Stratus R/T

The ML 430 is the large-engined version of Mercedes-Benz's luxury sports utility vehicle. And, quite frankly, it underwhelmed us. Perhaps it's the burden of expectations: the company's reputation and the $44,000-plus sticker led us to expect more. Or perhaps it's because we've been spoiled by newer, better-riding SUVs from Acura, BMW, and the like. In any case, consider us underimpressed.

The ML 430 is an all-wheel-drive, V8-powered, four-door sports utilityvehicle introduced for the 1998 model year. The M-Class comes in three variations. There's the ML 430, and the ML320 with a V6 engine, which costs about $8,000 less. Finally, there's a hot-rod ML 55 AMG; it costs about 10 grand more than the 430.

Driving Experience

There are lots of good things about this vehicle. The ML 430 has a 268-horsepower engine that's quite powerful. Its acceleration and braking are top notch. And, as is usually the case with a Mercedes vehicle, you feel safe and secure in it. It's solid, thick walled, and very competent. The ML 430 stayed nice and flat on turns, in contrast to some other SUVs. And we have to give the ML 430 credit for doing an outstanding job in the snow that fell on Our Fair City during our test period.

So what's not to like? Well, in a word: the ride, particularly on rough surfaces. If the road you're on is the least bit uneven, you're going to have to hold tight to the steering wheel. The ML 430 seemed inexplicably thrown off by potholes and bumps. Comments about this vehicle's bump-absorption ranged from "stiff" to "putrid." Everyone who drove this vehicle agreed that Mercedes had sacrificed too much ride quality in exchange for a true off-road ability which, frankly, few moms will ever use while carting the kids off to polo lessons.

The on-road shortcomings of the ML 430 were particularly apparent after a stint in a decent-handing Volvo Cross Country station wagon. (Okay. So it isn't fair to compare two vehicles as different as these. Sue us.) In comparison, on the same pothole-infested roads, the ML 430 felt like a handful.

The ride is particularly disappointing, given the cost of this vehicle and the great reputation that Mercedes has for road manners. And in our experience, the suspensions on SUVs tend to get sloppier over time. We want to reiterate: It's not that this vehicle is uncomfortable or lousy in any way. It just doesn't live up to the expectations of a $45,000 Mercedes.

We didn't drive the ML 430 and the ML 320 side by side. But we didn't remember disliking the ML 320's ride quite so much. That may be because the ML 430 is heavier up front, due to the larger engine. It may be due to different tires. Or, more likely, when we drove the ML 320 a couple of years ago, the BMW X5 and Acura MDX hadn't come out yet. In any case, our impression this time was that the ML 430 rides too much like a truck.

Interior

The seats, as in all Mercedes vehicles, are firm, supportive, and comfortable. The interior materials look and feel expensive. The third-row seats are really only sufficient for young'uns. You run the risk of making an enemy for life of anyone over the age of five who's forced to spend time back there. The back seat, on the other hand, is acceptable, while there was good room up front for driver and passenger. Cargo room is only adequate. Even without the third row of seats, there's not much space for cargo in the back.

Mercedes could address the space problem simply by adding a foot or so to the vehicle's length, which -- according to Ray -- would have the added benefit of improving its somewhat stubby looks. Of course, Ray's wife says if he added a foot or so, it would improve his stubby looks too.

Stratus R/TBecause this is a Mercedes, it has a lengthy list of standard bells and whistles, including side air bags, air conditioning, power locks, powerwindows, heated seats, a roof console, cruise control, an outside thermometer, tilt wheel, and even a first-aid kit, for when that careless barista drops a steaming-hot latte into your lap at the drive-up window. (There's also provision for a cell phone, so that you can call your lawyer and have him meet you at the station house when you endanger innocent drivers while yakking.) We were puzzled by Mercedes' failure to provide an auto-up switch for the driver's window, although there is an auto-down switch. You can get one on vehicles costing much less; why not on this one?

Ergonomics

Stratus R/TIf you're looking for one good reason not to buy this vehicle, it's the inclusion of a video screen in the middle of the dashboard. This is a common malady these days, in which manufacturers want to impress you with technology. Instead, they end up distracting you from driving, while you scroll through menus on a video screen to control things like the radio, navigation, telephone, bubble-bath dispenser, and the like. If it truly made life easier, we might not hate it as much. But it's not at all intuitive. We found a radio station we liked and just left it there all week, rather than risk losing it and not being able to find our way back. So if, by some amazing stroke of luck, you're actually able to tune it to your favorite station, we suggest leaving it there until the lease is up. Another goof: The control that's farthest from the driver is the one most frequently used -- the volume control -- and there are no duplicate radio controls on the steering wheel, as in some other vehicles.

We have never liked Mercedes' placement of the cruise-control switch on a stalk just behind the turn-signal stalk on the steering column. It's very easy to accidentally engage the cruise control when you're trying to signal a turn. (Admittedly a rarity in Boston, but we've heard that people elsewhere use their blinkers.)

There are a couple of bright spots. By comparison, we found the heating and air conditioning controls straightforward and easy to use. We liked the buttons that let us retract the outside mirrors to make parking in tight spots easier. And we found the placement of the cup holder, on the left side, to be a brilliant coup. Unlike almost every other cup holder we've ever seen, the ML 430's cup holder is perfectly located and does not obstruct controls or gauges when it's in use.

Styling

Stratus R/TAs we mentioned previously, Ray has never cared for the looks of the M-Class. He found it to be kind of truncated, as if the designer was running out of paper when he was doing the back end. Dougie likes it well enough. Tommy couldn't remember what it looks like.

Reliability

One would expect any vehicle costing this much money to be reliable, but we have cause for doubt. "Consumer Reports" rates the M-Class as much worse than average, and many owners who've filled out the questionnaire in the Car Report section of our Web site have complained about mechanical troubles and squeaks and rattles.

Maintenance

This is one vehicle you're going to want to bring back to the dealership for service. There's a lot of complicated stuff going on under that hood, and we think that Franz, with his factory training, has a better chance of getting it right than Joe Bob at the corner garage.

Overall comments

Who would go out and play in the mud in a $45,000 Mercedes? That, in our humble opinion, is the pivotal question here. Because Mercedes chose to veer toward true off-road ability, you'll be disappointed if you're expecting the same kind of comfy boulevard ride you could get in the Acura MDX or the Lexus RX 300. Both the Acura and the Lexus come with a V6 engine, it's true, but they're also $10,000 less expensive. So, for that matter, is Mercedes' own ML 320, which, frankly, strikes us as a more attractive choice than the 430. We think paying an additional $8,000 for a V8 engine is an unnecessary extravagance.

In the same ritzy neighborhood as the M-Class are BMW's new SUV, the X5, which is more carlike, and the Land Rover Discovery, which we hated. But if you simply have to be seen in a Mercedes, are among the 3 percent of SUV owners who might actually take their vehicle off-road one day, and have clients or patients booked solid for the next three months so you can afford it, then the ML 430 is worth a look.

View cars.com model report on this vehicle.


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