by Tony Whitney
When Mercedes-Benz conceived its M-Class models, it tried to avoid the tag “sport utility vehicle.” The rig was launched as an “all activity vehicle” and that’s probably what its turned out to be. It certainly has most of the characteristics of an SUV and is more than capable off-road, but it has many of the features normally associated with minivans or even station wagons. It even looks distinctively different than any rival in the SUV field.
Whatever people want to call this highly practical vehicle, there’s no denying its popularity. They seem to be everywhere and both six and 8-cylinder versions seem to have sold in equal numbers – and in substantial quantities. Basically, buyers get a truck of great versatility with all the luxury trappings associated with the nameplate of Mercedes-Benz.
Originally, there was just one model, with a 3.2-litre, 6-cylinder engine, but a 4.2-litre V8 soon followed. After that, the floodgates opened and in true Mercedes style, there was an “M” for everyone. There’s even a version from master Mercedes tuner AMG with a potent 5.5-litre V-8 engine and higher-than-ever levels of luxury.
For 2003, Mercedes has upped the ante and brought us an “Inspiration” edition of the vehicle with an upgraded 3.5-litre V6 – the most recent model I’ve tried. The only problem with this move for Mercedes is that it’s darned near as powerful and silky smooth as the V8 variant. Having given the 2003 ML350 Inspiration a good workout, I have a feeling that if I brought an M-Class right now, I’d go for the 3.5-litre six.
The new “six” puts out 245 horsepower and it really shows when driving the vehicle. It pulls like the V8 and is nearly as refined. It’s a very satisfying power unit indeed and should give the “entry-level” six-banger M-Class a new lease on life. Torque is up by 11 per cent, which is going to please people who carry full passenger/cargo loads or do a bit of towing now and again.
Transmission is a 5-speed automatic and this is well up to the high standards we’ve come to expect from Mercedes-Benz. The interior is typical Mercedes and the choice of materials and textures can’t be faulted. Inspiration models have the black poplar wood veneer that’s found in other models from this manufacturer and other touches include anthracite leather upholstery with light grey top stitching. This material is also used for the door panels, steering wheel, the armrest between the front seats, and the gearshift knob. All in all, the interior is very luxuriously trimmed.
The fronts seats, incidentally, come straight from the flagship ML 55 AMG and are very well contoured with lots of back and side support. The instruments have chrome bezels and white needles and the effect looks very attractive as well as being easy to scan. The interior is completed with custom floor mats with the “inspiration” emblem.
The ML350 rides on 17-inch cast alloy wheels and there are some nifty paintwork effects to set this model apart from "non-Inspiration" versions. There was nothing really wrong with the older ML 320 models (now sold as "Classic" versions), though there were certainly critics who bemoaned a shortage of power. Now this has been addressed and all M-Class models can meet any challenger in their respective classes.
Like other Mercedes-Benz models, the vehicle has a wonderful feeling of quality and solidity. Even the cup holders which pivot out of the dash look as though they could be stood on without doing them much harm. Cargo space is very good, if not up to Chevrolet Suburban standards, and the rear seats fold well out of the way for large loads. I've often wondered why Mercedes didn't come up with a long wheelbase version of this vehicle for business users or people with large families and lots of touring on their agendas. Perhaps some time in the future.
Mercedes-Benz M-Class models start at $50,600.
Technical Data: 2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350 Elegance
|Price as tested||$60,225 including Inspiration package ($2170), Bose sound system ($1150)|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger mid-size SUV|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 3 valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower||232 @ 5750 rpm|
|Torque||254 lb-ft @ 3000-4500 rpm|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic with Touch Shift manual mode|
|Curb weight||2185 kg (4819 lb.)|
|Towing capacity||2268 kg (5000 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2820 mm (111.0 in.)|
|Length||4638 mm (182.6 in.)|
|Width||1840 mm (72.4 in.)|
|Height||1820 mm (71.7 in.)|
|Ground clearance||220 mm (8.7 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||982 litres (34.7 cu. ft.) seats up; 2300 litres (81.2 cu. ft.) seats down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 15.5 l/100 km (18 mpg)|
|Hwy: 12.0 l/100 km (24 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|