The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is perhaps one of the least conventional and most tested sport/utilities ever to appear in Motor Trend. Least conventional because, among other things, it uses an unusual electronic four-wheel-drive system and a sport sedan-sourced V-8 engine, and is often criticized for its minivan-like looks. It's the most tested because, since we named it Motor Trend's '98 Truck of the Year, we've put it up against everything from a Volvo V70 XC to a Jeep Grand Cherokee and all the others between. Each time, the V-6 ML320 or V-8 ML430 never failed to impress, earned the respect of some skeptical editors and, more often than not, turned in a winning performance. To say we like the M-Class is to understate our position. In our eyes, there was only one test left: the Death Valley torture test.

Comparing the cost of each vehicle in this test, the ML430 falls about midpack; in brand cachet, as well, about in the middle. However, when it comes to street performance, the ML430 muscles its way to the top with only one serious competitor in the quick and nimble Jeep Grand Cherokee. All the editors considered Mercedes the sport sedan of the group, and with good reason. From its husky 24-valve voice and firmish ride, right down to its low-profile, wide footprints, the ML430 means business.

At our test facility, the 4.3-liter/268-horsepower V-8 propelled the all-wheel-drive ML to 60 mph in a mere 8.2 seconds on its way to a 16.4-second/86-mph quarter mile-not bad for a sport sedan, er, sport/ute. Credit four-wheel independent suspension and anti-roll bars, because handling was equally impressive: dodging the slalom cones at 60.1-mph and sticking to the tarmac with a 0.75g grip around the skidpad. When the dirt started to fly, however, we found the ML had lost a bit of its favor among our group.

Actually, right when the pavement ended (and not yet to the rough stuff), the ML430's ride was superbly smooth and isolated on a hard packed dirt road with a nasty washboard surface-no doubt attributable to 10 rubber body-to-frame mounts. Also, we discovered what annoys us on the pavement with the M-Class' lack of caster in the steering gear proved to be very well suited to off-roading, sufficiently eliminating steering wheel kickback and rut tracking. Other things we particularly thought clever and off-road-appropriate include: three "open" differentials allowing torque to be routed to a single wheel if necessary, push-button 2.64:1 low range, adaptive five-speed electronic transmission, fully independent suspension, short front and rear overhang, and rugged body-on-frame construction. All great stuff, but useless if you don't want to break a front spoiler (nearly did), high-center your rig (did that), or get a flat tire (did that, too). At this price ($46,965 as tested), you'll want to keep it in good shape.

But despite outstanding technological measures and clever hardware that could make the ML a competent off-roader, its moderate ground clearance of 8.4 inches, lack of suspension travel/articulation, and low-profile street tires conspired to make the ML430 less likely to be chosen when the trail got tough-and that it certainly did.

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