The Mercedes-Benz ML430 can be distinguished from the ML320 by its larger, aggressive-looking 275/55R-17 inch Mud-&-Snow-rated radials mounted on 17 inch alloy wheels, body-coloured bumpers, rocker panels and side mouldings.
A premium SUV with a premium price-tag
About a year after introducing the mid-sized, V6-powered ML320 sport-utility vehicle, Mercedes-Benz followed with the V8-powered ML430. The ML430 packs the same 268 horsepower 4.3 litre V8 engine used in the E430 and S430 sedans – a relatively new powerplant that shares its basic architecture with the 3.2 litre V6 including three-valves-per-cylinder and two sparkplugs per cylinder.
The ML430’s 4.3 litre SOHC V8 develops 268 horsepower at 5500 rpm compared to the 3.2 litre V6 engine’s 215 horsepower at 5500 rpm – but more importantly for a vehicle which can be used to tow trailers weighing up to 2500 kg, engine torque is also greater: 288 lb-ft between 3000 and 4500 rpm compared to 233 lb-ft at 3000 rpm.
As you might expect, an unladen ML430 is considerably quicker off-the-line than an ML320, and also offers better freeway passing power. Its 0 to 100 km/h time of 8.5 seconds compares to the ML320’s time of 9.7 seconds. Fuel consumption suffers slightly, though not as much as you might expect: the ML430 averages 13.7 l/100 km (21 mpg) while the ML320 averages 12.6 l/100 km (23 mpg).
The ML430 can be distinguished from the ML320 by its larger, aggressive-looking 275/55R-17 inch Mud-&-Snow-rated radials mounted on 17 inch alloy wheels, body-coloured bumpers, rocker panels and side mouldings. Interior differences include standard leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, power heated front seats, trip computer, automatic dimming rearview mirror, and a storage bin under the front passenger seat.
Equipped with these standard features, the ML430 is priced at $59,950. That compares with the ML320 Classic at $47,550, and the better-equipped ML320 Elegance at $53,500. More significantly, the ML430’s base price is higher than its major competitors, the V8-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 5.9 ($47,920), the Ford Explorer Limited AWD ($43,995), the Land Rover Discovery ($46,900), and Dodge Durango ($41,165).
Mercedes-Benz may be depending on their brand’s reputation for quality and prestige to add some perceived value, but is there anything else about the ML430 to justify its premium price-tag?
Well, actually, there is.
Like the ML320, the ML430 has engineering features not found on competing vehicles, such as a unique four-wheel-drive system with four-wheel electronic traction control, a fully independent suspension, an anti-skid system called Electronic Stability Program, and Brake Assist, a system which reduces braking distances in panic stops.
The most interesting of these is the ML430’s full-time four-wheel-drive system which uses three open differentials, front center and rear, to distribute torque evenly to front and rear wheels. If traction is lost, the ML430 does not lock its axles like most other 4X4’s – instead, its four-wheel traction control system automatically brakes only the wheels that are slipping, thereby transferring power to the wheels with traction. This system works even when only one wheel has traction.
Having operated this system on some very slippery, perilous roads, I can verify that it actually works, and is completely automatic – the driver simply pushes the accelerator a little harder to get out of slippery spots (the opposite of what you would do in a conventional 4X4). On very steep, slippery back roads, the driver can engage a Low Range gear (with a 2.64:1 ratio) by simply pushing a button on the dashboard.
Some other features which differentiate the ML430 from other sport utility vehicles are its four-wheel independent double wishbone suspension which provides better on and off-road handling, crisper steering, and a better ride on undulating surfaces; ESP anti-skid system which prevents the vehicle from ‘fishtailing’ or ‘ploughing’ when rounding a corner too quickly; and Brake Assist, a system which Mercedes-Benz claims reduces braking distances by up to 45% by automatically applying brake pressure during panic stops.
In addition to these features, the ML430 comes with a standard five-speed automatic transmission which shifts seamlessly and automatically adapts to driving style, and improves day-to-day performance when compared with most of its competitor’s four-speed automatic transmissions.
In terms of safety too, the ML430 provides the same protection offered by the E320 sedan, claims Mercedes, even though it has a welded steel box frame rather than a unit body design. In addition to front and rear crumple zones, the ML430 has specially-designed windshield pillars that dissipate crash energy. It also has a front frame that won’t override a car’s body in a frontal collision.
Other standard safety features include four wheel ABS, two front airbags and two side airbags in the front doors, adjustable head restraints and three point seatbelts for all five passengers, emergency seatbelt retractors for front passengers, and an automatic child seat detection system which deactivates the front passenger airbag.
The ML430’s rather tall, boxy design is not as macho as most other mid-sized SUV’s, but it is more practical. There’s plenty of headroom and legroom for all five passengers and it’s total cargo capacity (with the rear seats folded down) of 2418 litres is greater than the Ford Explorer’s 2311 litres. In addition, the cargo area has a taller, wider opening with an easy-to-lift-up hatch. The second row seat is unique: it’s divided into three sections so that it can be folded down 1/3, 2/3 or 3/3. Two small third row seats are available as an option for 1999, bring total seating capacity to seven.
Though it’s tall, the ML430 has one of the lowest step-in heights in its class: 46 cm, and all four doors are larger than average for easier entry and exit.
However, the ML430’s tall design and 2010 kg curb weight have some disadvantages on the road: it feels rather ‘top heavy’ in spirited driving, and not quite as sporty as the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, despite its independent suspension. Another small quibble I had was the design of the dashboard top which reflects an annoying character line in the windshield under some lighting conditions.
Otherwise, it’s almost as comfortable and quiet as a luxury car on pavement – the engine turns over just 2100 rpm in top gear at a steady 100 km/h and is barely audible. Visibility is excellent, and controls are well-placed for easy reach. There’s even a couple of built-in cupholders in the dash (something Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t have done a few years ago).
In addition to the standard features I mentioned earlier, the ML430 has standard air conditioning with pollen filters, 80 watt AM/FM/cassette stereo with prewiring for a CD player and phone, power windows with front express-down feature, power heated side mirrors, outside temperature gauge (I love these), cruise control, tilt steering wheel, rear defroster and wiper, retractable cargo cover, and roof rack.
A new option for 1999 is huge sunroof called the Power Skyview Top. It folds back like an accordion revealing a roof opening that stretches from front to back seat passengers. Just plunk down $2,990, and it’s yours!
And like every Mercedes-Benz, the ML430 comes with a four year/80,000 kilometre warranty and a five year/120,000 km powertrain warranty. The ML430 and ML320 are built in Vance, Alabama.
So is the ML430 worth its hefty premium?
A panel of international automotive journalists seem to think so. In April, a jury of twenty-two journalists from five continents bestowed the M-Class with the “World Car Award” – an award which goes to the car which is most suited for use in all five populated continents of the world.
Versatility and innovative engineering are certainly the ML430’s strong points, and these certainly add value for the discriminating buyer. But I wondor how many ML430’s will be sold simply because they have a large, three-pointed star in the grille and a V8 under the hood?