In 1997, the crossover term applied only to psychics and gender swappers. The Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester, and the Toyota RAV4 were thoughtfully mapping a car-based path for the Lexus RX300, the BMW X5, and the Acura MDX to follow. The course was clear for mid-size SUVs to ditch trucky underpinnings in favor of lighter, more supple chassis components.
Then Mercedes-Benz muddled the movement by introducing its ML320 with husky body-on-frame construction. Did Stuttgart know something that other SUV engineers had missed? Could the first premium mid-size sport-ute thrive with Gelndewagen bones inside a minivan body?
Remarkably, the M-class lacked the fortitude to venture far off-road, and its street verve fell well below Mercedes car norms. Interior furnishings were functionally flawed, conspicuously cost-conscious, and fraught with quality glitches. More remarkable is that this didn't seriously impede the M-class's acceptance. In eight model years, 620,000 of them have been built at the Vance, Alabama, plant, about half for U.S. consumption. Tarnish has barely dimmed the silver star's magnetic attraction.
Creating the first mid-lux SUV is one thing; surviving today's dogfight is quite another. Ten brands stand ready to turn $40,000 to $60,000 into the mid-size SUV of your dreams. Shelves are well stocked with street sprinters, rut runners, even a tree-hugging hybrid or two. Stepping off the hunched shoulders of the original M-class, the new second edition, just hitting dealerships, faces a long trek to the goalposts.
To clean up its manufacturing act and to improve build quality, Mercedes sank another $600 million into its Alabama plant, raised the robot count to 800, and doubled the human workforce to 4000. On the heels of the new M-class, an R-class seven-seat wagon will bow this fall, followed by a kinder, gentler G-class for 2007. Better late than never, Mercedes got crossover religion.
Visually, the first ripple of this product wave looks like a page ripped from an old Cadillac playbook. The M-class is not only 5.9 inches longer, 0.4 inch lower, and 2.8 inches wider than its predecessor, it's certifiably flamboyant. The castellated grille vanes, cocked beltline, and exaggerated fender flares evoke tail-fin times. There's a rich overlay of chrome jewelry and a daunting list of creature comforts. Driving is reduced to push-button tasks where possible. Power and performance are higher priorities, so the entry-level V-6-powered ML350 inherits the legs of the outgoing ML500, and the new ML500 finally has the lungs to run with BMW and Porsche.
In contrast to the M-class's flashy overcoat, its soul is risk-averse. Eliminating the frame, using high-strength steel for two-thirds of the unibody, and moving to a space-saver spare shaves 110 pounds. The 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 engine introduced for the new SLK-class is the heart of the ML350, while the ML500 stays with an improved edition of the venerable 5.0-liter SOHC 24-valve V-8. The corporate manu-matic transmission ups the forward gear count by two. New control-arm front and four-link rear suspension systems bring the wheel travel and geometric sophistication needed for vastly improved ride and handling. R&D head Thomas Weber expressly limited the scope of technical innovation in hopes of a trouble-free launch and an end to the quality erosion Mercedes has suffered.
In spite of the fact that all M-classes are made in America and most of them will spend their days cruising the fifty states, Mercedes shipped preproduction units to southern France for the coming-out party. The festivit en Provence makes some sense if you know your Mercedes history. Years before Daimler and Benz joined forces, the Cte d'Azur was the place where ambitious auto pioneers competed for the attention of the wealthy elite that wintered there. This is where the local car distributor Emil Jellinek persuaded Daimler Motors to inscribe his daughter's name-Mrcdes-onto the three-pointed star in exchange for his purchase of nearly a third of the 1900 production run.