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.
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.