Mercedes-Benz ML350
When the first ML hit the streets in late 1997, the targets in Mercedes' crosshairs were upscale versions of the hot-selling Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the latter known for its true off-road capability. So the ML320 came to market with the hardware to tackle the boonies and impress the 'burbs. Even though most upscale-SUV buyers wouldn't dare risk their investments near rocks and trees, proven 4WD capability seemed a prerequisite for success. It fit perfectly the SUV image prevalent at the time.

About a year later, though, the runaway popularity of the car-based Lexus RX 300 helped change that perception. The Lexus, more suited to all-weather road use than serious rock-hopping, became a model for luxury-branded SUVs with increasingly carlike characteristics. Today, the latest ML carries a lot more weight and truck-based componentry than many of its competitors. It's a truck, albeit a fancy one, with a beefy ladder frame, an independent control-arm front suspension, and standard full-time four-wheel drive with a genuine two-speed transfer case.

For '03, last year's entry-level M-Class gets a name change from ML320 to ML350, courtesy of a larger 3.7-liter SOHC 18-valve V-6 engine. The 16-percent bump in displacement comes from an increase in bore size and results in modest horsepower and torque increases of eight and nine percent, respectively. The engine's 232 horsepower helps keep the ML350 in the hunt with newer competition. There's now more midrange brightness, though it's not anything that'll push you back in the seat. Also new for '03 is "Inspiration Edition" trim, which includes "designo" dark-poplar wood trim, silver cross-stitched Anthracite leather sport seats, six-spoke 17-inch alloys, and a silver grille. Model year '03 represents a holding pattern for this six-year-old product. The M-Class Mercedes is a solid effort, but no longer the buzz of SUVdom. An all-new, unit-body car-based ML replacement is but two years away.