However, it’s built in the USA, not Stuttgart, and there have been criticisms over quality – especially on early models.
The 2005 replacement puts M-class back among the class leaders.
All original cars came with permanent four-wheel drive, 4-ETS Electronic Traction System (ETS), Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), low-ratio gearbox and front and rear fog lamps.
ML430 (from March 1999) added colour-coded bumpers/rubbing strips/mirrors, leather/wood trim, electric mirrors, alloy wheels. ML270 CDi (September 1999) has a manual gearbox. ML55 with full AMG kit was added in August 2000.
Luxury pack gives electrically adjustable front seats, leather upholstery, leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearshift and wood interior. Family pack has a third row of seats, lockable valuables box and pop-open rear windows. Revisions in August 2001 included bigger bumpers, repeat indicators in door mirrors, light-sensing headlamps and redesigned centre console.
Up against premium SUVs such as the BMW X5, Lexus RX300 and Range Rover Sport, this M-class shows its age. There’s excessive body roll through corners and a poor ride over rough roads is off-putting, though it is capable on the motorway.
There’s an advanced traction control system that makes M-class an able off-road performer, although you wouldn’t subject it to anything too extreme.
The driver is fronted by a clear dashboard with everything in the right place ergonomically. The dials are easy to read and there’s lots of room for the driver, with a good driving position easy to set up through plenty of adjustment. As with most off-roaders, the view is commanding, although its bulk can cause manoeuvring difficulties in tight spaces.
Entry 2.7 diesel is the best choice. It’s smooth and refined but punchy when required whereas the 3.2 V6 is refined, but can be noisy when pushed. ML55 AMG uses a 5.4-litre V8 and is powerful, but the M-class chassis can’t offer the composure or body control of the likes of the Porsche Cayenne. However, it certainly shifts in a straight line.
Scoring a four-star Euro NCAP rating in 2002 the M-class has airbags all round, pre-tensioners and force-limiting front seat belts, ABS and ESP. Security is taken care of with an immobilizer, remote locking and alarm. Fit a tracker system for extra protection as Mercedes won’t fit deadlocks, claiming they hamper rescue in the event of an accident.