The Mercedes Benz M Class is a mid-sized SUV with a body-on-frame construction that began life in the Mercedes plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as a 1998 model. The USA plant was built expressly for production of the M Class vehicles. With only a few minor modifications, the M Class remains in production today. For a short time, these SUVs were also built in the Magna Steyr plant in Graz, Austria.
Initially, the model lineup was limited to an ML 320, powered by a 3.2-liter overhead cam V-6, driving all four wheels through an effective all-wheel-drive system. In 1999 the ML 430 was added, with a 4.3-liter V8 under the hood. Like other notable European auto manufacturers, the model number often designates the engine size.
Though it is mid-sized, the ML in weighs in at close to 2.5 tons because of the complex drive system and a plethora of features. Even so, the gasoline-powered ML delivers fuel economy better than most SUVs in its class, while the diesels deliver amazing fuel mileage.
The W-163, M-B's internal designation for the original ML, was built until the 2005 model year, when a redesigned W-164 replaced it. Models of the W-163 included: ML 320, ML 320 diesel, ML 350, ML 430, ML 500 and ML 55 AMG. The latter vehicle was prepped by the Mercedes Benz AMG High Performance Division for substantially-improved power and handling. Essentially, it was a race car thinly disguised as an SUV. The Popemobile in current use is based on the 2002 ML 430 model.
Even the base models of the M Series are fairly opulent, but the upscale models featuring a V8 are downright luxurious. Automatic features abound: light-sensing headlights that turn on automatically in low light; rain sensing windshield wipers (front and rear); automatic window lifts; as well as a navigation and sound system with an integrated telephone.
The ML Series is a competent off-roader, too. There is sufficient ground clearance to handle moderately rough terrain and the all-wheel-drive system is very effective, offering a low range in the transfer case. On the highway, the ride is smooth and supple. These vehicles comfortably carry five to seven passengers. Though it is classified as a light truck, the handling of an M Class is very much like a luxury automobile. In 1998, the ML Class was Motor Trend's Truck of the Year and Mercedes Benz has upheld that standard of quality and performance ever since.
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