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1998 Mercedes Benz ML320

The Mercedes ML320 is sold as an "AAV' or All-activity vehicle, which is a mite presumptuous. Perhaps it is a many or several-activity vehicle.

At the very least, I guess we can assume that the M-Class Benz is supposed to tote cargo like a truck-wagon and traverse the boonies like a Jeep while also exhibiting road-going performance and handling comparable to that of a good car.

But, aren't those claims, in varying degree, made by all of the sport ute manufacturers?

Fulfilling those promises and living up to the title of the "Mercedes of 4x4s" is a tall order. To that end, the German firm best known for its expensive sedans started with the

proverbial clean sheet of paper plus a new manufacturing plant in Alabama, the heart of 4WD truck country.

Although there are a few engineering details that are familiar 4×4 fare, most of the design, from the independent suspension and traction system to the styling, is unique, often novel and occasionally strange.

Thanksgiving weekend in Muskoka offered the perfect opportunity to evaluate Mercedes' vision of a sport utility.

We celebrated the holiday in the company of four generations of family at Ginny and Dave's property just west of Algonquin Park. Not only did we have the long traffic-filled grind up the 400 and Hwy 11 laden with luggage and pumpkin pies, but we hadthe tight curves of a cottage access road to contend with.

Best of all, my bro'-in-law David's land just happens to be crisscrossed with gravel logging roads and off-road trails, and there is a small sand and gravel pit hidden in the hills. Many activities.

However, before I discuss how the Mercedes did, perhaps we should consider how it looks. Of the 16 adult guests at this soiree, not one was unreservedly positive about the ML320's styling. Some actively hated it, most came to accept it and a few, including myself, decided they liked it. But it does take some getting used to.

I've decided that the ML320 not looking like a traditional compact truck-wagon is not the main issue. Instead, we experience considerable mental dissonance because the vehicle's

shape and main styling cues are derived from much smaller vehicles, virtually any of the current crop of compact square-back sedans.

To get a sense of this, don't try to shrink the Mercedes in your mind. Instead, expand a Golf or Civic to sport ute-size. We expect the ML320 to be small, but it's not. Parked next to a Grand Cherokee there is no question which one dominates. The Mercedes is 28 mm wider, 132 mm taller and sits on a 2820 mm wheelbase that is 130 mm longer.

Once the mind gets past the concept of a little square-back becoming a big square-back, it starts to accept the idea that the ML320 might actually be handsome. In the words of the late, beloved John Candy, "It blew up real good!"

How did it do from the driver's seat?

Well, on the highway Mercedes has managed to make the ML320 feel like a Mercedes. The driving position, size of the steering wheel, dash layout and so on are vintage Benz.

From the front buckets, comfortable but with unyieldingly firm upholstery, you could be driving a new C-Class or an old 300TD.

Only a little shake in the steering wheel and an occasional creak from the rear hatch revealed that not even Mercedes can make a big box as rigid as one of its sedans.

Handling is close to impeccable. At speed, this 4×4 tracks with Autobahn-bred aplomb.

The steering is deliciously accurate for a sport ute and the big machine goes about the business of getting around a turn with surefooted poise. Not too spritely, mind you, just boringly confident like any Mercedes.

Highway performance has a European feel to it, relying on a relatively small, (3.2 litres, 215 horsepower) free-revving V6 with a generous torque delivery curve rather than the chugging grunt of a truck motor.

The little engine suffers not at all for its size. Whether cruising at extralegal speeds or pulling out to pass, the drivetrain mirrors the confidence of the chassis.



ECONOMICAL OPERATION

Whereas for most sport utilities the concept of fuel economy is a joke, the ML320 used only 12 litres of premium unleaded per 100 km averaged over the entire weekend of hard driving.

The V6 is supported by a five-speed automatic transmission that is as surreptitious as it is efficient. If the task requires a certain ratio, the tranny gently slips into that gear with impressive accuracy, modifying both its shift points and gear choice to match the driver's style or the demands of the situation (hills, for example, or heavy traffic.)

The driver can also get involved with this process. The console-mounted selector is designed to be shifted. Access to lower gears for engine braking or sporty acceleration out of a corner is there with an easy snap of the knob.



POWERFUL BRAKES

Braking is also accomplished in the European style. The binders are powerful, rapidly hauling the heavy sport ute down from highway velocities without the four-channel ABS kicking in until a skid is induced. None of the ML320's pavement behaviours are unexpected. The Germans certainly know how to do this stuff.

Mercedes also has experience with the requirements of off-pavement travel, having created purpose-built back country transportation like the Unimog and the Gelandewagen. But those vehicles can best be compared to the Land Rover or

the Jeep, dedicated off-roaders, not the truly dual-purpose 4x4s we know as sport utilities.

And if we are honest, the second purpose to which we apply our sport utes is rarely true off-roading. It's bad-roading on gravel, snow or rutted mud.



OFFROAD FUN

Dave's traffic-free logging roads allowed me to fling the ML320 around on gravelled twisties with the abandon of a rally driver on a closed stage.

Damn, it was fun.

The Mercedes employs a fulltime 4WD system that has open, as opposed to locking, differentials at each axle and at the centre transfer case. As a result, the torque is split 50/50 to the front and rear and a locked diff never upsets the handling.

Blitz into a corner under power, lift off to bring the tail out, feed in more power and haul around the turn, gravel flying. Fun, yes, but the ML320's forgiving ways will also assist the everyday driver who runs out of room or traction at everyday speeds on gravel, mud or snow.

When the grip is marginal or absent, the ML320's traction control system comes into play. Using the ABS computer and hardware, the sophisticated 4ETS gadgetry applies the brakes to any spinning wheel, with the effect that power always goes to the tire with the greatest connection to the ground. If three are on glare ice and one sits on dry pavement, the pavement-sitter will get the nod.

Driving on the sparkling quartz sand in brother David's pit can be a very slick experience, especially if the driver is less than gentle on the throttle. I was as aggressive as I could be

with that pedal, and it was a treat to feel the system pick its way through the slippery bunker.

Getting out and looking back at the tracks, I could see how the power switched from wheel to wheel as required. I can't wait to try it in the snow. The tortured terrain in the pit also allowed me to test the Mercedes against some classic off-road challenges. Like ruts so deep that the ground clearance would be used up and at least one wheel would be left dangling in midair. Or, a soft dirt slope so steep that on the way up all that can be seen is sky. And where there is a strong possibility of sliding out of control, and rolling over, on the way down.



SOLID ENGINEERING

Although the ML320 is unlike any of the best of the off-roader sport utes, (the 4Runner, Pathfinder and Grand Cherokee come to mind) it has received the benefit of some solid off-road engineering.

Take a look, when you get the chance, at the undersides of the Mercedes. There is a perfectly clear swath of clearance from one end to the other. No shock mounts reach out to drag on the dirt or hang on a rock. The transfer case, transmission and steering gear are all tucked up out of harm's way. The exhaust system is under there somewhere, neither to be seen or damaged.

Dipping in and out of those ruts, the bottom scraped on occasion, but never enough to impede our progress or threaten getting stuck.

Dave has a big front-end loader and a strong tow strap, so I took this test to the limit. Nevertheless, the traction control kept us going even with two wheels hanging in the breeze.

The 4ETS also got the Mercedes up that hill. The 255/65R16 Dunlop Grand Trek tires are a good all-round choice, but the tread was not open enough for these conditions. An insane (and unsafe) run at the hill might have put us over the top. Approached quickly but prudently, the hill could be conquered. But not without the traction system controlling wheel spin.

Coming back down required the vehicle stabilizing technique of engine braking against a very low gear ratio. Mercedes claims it has the lowest first gear 4Lo ratio in the class. It was certainly low enough to get the ML320 down a truly scary descent without incident. (I tried that one only once!) So, is it the ultimate sport ute off-roader?



MORE FRAGILE UNDERPINNINGS

In comparison with the brute force engineering that characterizes some of its competition, the ML320's underpinnings are more fragile and likely expensive to repair.

The articulation of the suspension, good as it is, can't match that of some of the others. But give it a taller, more gnarly set of tires and it would take me anywhere in the back country I'd care to go.

Where I'm more likely to go, however, is on down the highway somewhere, perhaps with a boat behind (tow rating: 2268 kg). Or just out for a week's worth of groceries. That is, using the vehicle as a practical wagon, like most of us do.

In its fevered attempts to set new standards for sport ute utility, Mercedes can be accused of both trying too hard and of overlooking some of the evolution that has occurred in the class in recent years.



UGLY REAR SEAT

The harshly angular rear seat may set new standards for three-a-breast second row accommodation, but it sure is ugly.

The process of folding the seat may result in a flat load floor, but the operation is inordinately complicated, requiring the owner's manual and trying the owner's patience.

Said seat will move fore and aft to improve either the cargo area or the rear passenger leg room, but the cheezy clip-in plastic panels that cover the void behind the seat rattle

incessantly, whether they are installed or not. I wrapped ours in towels and jammed them in a corner.

The one-piece full-height lift hatch is a start in the right direction, but couldn't Mercedes designers see that, based on consumer input, the rest of the industry is making the shift to

a lift gate/lift glass combination?

The Mercedes gate is admirably large, all the more problem, however, when the cargo bay is full of items trying to fall out. Or when the ML320 is hitched to a trailer. The gate should be able to stay closed with a reach inside provided by an opening rear window.



PEPPERED WITH NEAT DETAILS

That's not to say all of the creativity has gone to waste. The ML320 is peppered with neat details like the roof and floor fixtures that accept a barrier screen to keep packages, kids or dogs behind either the front or rear seat.

Or, the cupholders that, on command, gracefully appear at both ends of the dashboard. Cool.

And we must note that the cargo bay is large and convenient to use. My guess is that it is at least as big as the Explorer's overall. But below the window level, the Mercedes is the new load space champ.



SAFETY ENGINEERING

The ML320 has also benefited from Mercedes' industry-leading safety research. Crush zones and rollover supports are incorporated into the entire structure in excess of any

legislated requirements.

The integrated chassis has been crafted so that it will avoid riding up and into a vehicle it strikes. Air bags can be found on both sides of the dash and in the doors for side impacts, a sport ute first.

By now everyone must know that the ML320 is a 'bargain.' We've had so much sticker shock lately that prices like $46,500 for the cloth-upholstered Classic and $52,800 for the

Leather-lined Elegance don't faze us anymore.

For that, the ML320 comes fully-equipped, and it is a Mercedes, the Mercedes of 4x4s.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on a weeklong driving experience in an ML320 supplied by Mercedes-Benz Canada.

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