As an adult, I’ve finally come to appreciate the mystery of numbers. Far from finite (as we upbraid our children to believe they are), numbers are teasingly fickle. Behind their rigid, plain facade, numbers wriggle, flash, and sparkle in all kinds of eccentric wayslike glinting tropical fish in a well-lit aquarium. Consider, for example, Mercedes-Benz’s recent announcement that sales of its year-old M-Class sport/utility vehicle are up an eye-bugging “396.7 percent” so far in ’98. Who can resist awe at such an achievement? What matter is it that M-B didn’t debut its ML320 sport/ute until midway through ’97, or that Ford Motor Co. has sold more Explorer SUVs in some months than the M-Class will likely accomplish this entire year?
No, numbers don’t lie; they get up and dance. That’s what makes them so fun to be around. There are other numbers associated with Mercedes’ unusual but appealing sport/ute that are nothing if not entertaining. Consider the following simple equation: To calculate the sum-total of the new-for-’99 ML430, take a current M-Class SUV, subtract the existing 3.2-liter V6, add back a 4.3-liter V8, multiply the result by 268 horsepower, factor in 8.0 seconds’ worth of elapsed time zero-to-60, and (beware lest your eyes go buggy again) amortize the whole shebang over a $43,750 base price. Here, I propose, is convincing proof that a given series of numbers can have different sets of meanings for varying groups of people.
Enthusiasts are understandably exhilarated over the arrival of the ML430. The single-overhead-cam V8 is not only gutsy in thrust (boasting 288 ft.-lbs. of torque) but also guttural in song, with a basso-profundo exhaust note as much felt as heard. The automatic transmission is a masterfully smooth five-speed that shifts up and down with intuitive logic. A sophisticated boxed-end frame (as opposed to a more flimsy open-end, ladder-style frame) is an ideal platform from which to hang responsive, independent suspensions at all four wheels. Truly massive tires (275/55R17) on giant 17-inch alloy wheels yield enormous traction and stability, both on- and off-road.
Mercedes’ computerized Electronic Stability Program (ESP) migrates to the M-Class as standard equipment after proving itself exclusively in certain M-B passenger cars heretofore. In a nutshell, ESP senses incipient oversteer (fishtailing) and understeer (front-end plowing), then automatically applies an appropriate corrective by momentarily braking an individual wheel. The ML430’s larger disk brakes employ Mercedes’ proprietary Brake Assist system, also standard, to shorten stopping distances in panic situations. With its wealth of platform, powertrain, and suspension refinements, the ML430 showcases an intriguing expression of automotive gestalt: It is a sports car among all-wheel-drive trucks, an unorthodox bubble of luxury among off-roader vehicles.
People who couldn’t care less about the eager performance and handling prowess of the ML430 can nevertheless enumerate their own favorite aspects of its design. At the most superficial level, of course, there’s the wall-to-wall ambience of de luxe fittings and featuresall standard. Leather? Of course. Wood trim? Ditto. Same goes for the stereo/cassette/weatherband radio; power seats, windows, mirrors, and locks; and HomeLink push-buttons for activating remote-control devices like garage-door openers. Clever, albeit typically German, is the BabySmart System, which employs special circuitry to disable the passenger-side airbag when a child is detected sitting in front of it. The circuitry comes standard; but in order to work, it is dependent upon “the presence of a special infant, toddler, or child booster seat (available from Mercedes dealers).”
Underneath all of this lily-gilding there resides one of the sport/utility world’s most versatile interiors. Standard seating for five will be amplified later in the model year with an optional third-row bench for two more passengers. Accommodating cargo is an entertaining matter of calculating permutations: You can choose to fold, flatten, or slide forward a second-row bench whose seat is split in two but whose back is divided three ways; the optional third row separates into two halves that batten sideways against the rear side windows.
For all the clever sophistication of the ML430, Mercedes bumbled badly with one feature: The HVAC system, particularly the air-flow selector, is not only counter-intuitive, it’s inscrutable. Goofy icons mixing triangles and stick figures defy decoding. The basic heater setting, for example, requires clicking one notch clockwise from “all vent,” manually setting both side-dash vents to a mysterious “window mode,” and closing three dampers in the center-dash vents. Geez! I just want my toes thawedand hurry!
There are customers who will love the ML430 for its performance panache and its pretty decent towing capacity (up to 5,000 lbs.), just as gated-community caballeros and mommy chauffeurs will admire the ML’s versatile knack for portaging people and things. Certainly, Mercedes is also counting upon another important constituency to meet its projected sales numbers: Status-addicts should find much that meets their conspicuously consumptive taste.
Beyond the mere traditional sunroof for $1,095 that I enjoyed on my tester, for example, there will follow later in the year an optional $2,395 Power Skyview Top measuring 4 feet long by 3 feet wide. A Bose six-CD stereo upgrade adds another $1,050, and metallic paint costs $475 extra. In short, the ML430 that I tested sprinted up to $46,965 in nothing flat.
While I had to pause more than once to consider the proper relationship among price, value, performance, and function of Mercedes’ latest luxo-truck, I must confess that I hadn’t counted upon the persuasive magic of a single, simple detail. In the middle of the grille, measuring a full hand-span in diameter, is a sparkling hunk of chrome that gleams with three-pointed pride. Undoubtedly, there are a number of fairly imprecise reasons why this may be the ML430’s most compelling feature of all.
They came, they drove, they contributed
BMW of Nashville’s Nancy Allen was beat but unbowed last week after herding 197 car cats through 234 free test drives during the dealership’s day-long Drive for the Cure. The annual benefit, which is a part of BMW of North America’s national fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, yields a “corporate dollar-per-mile” for every test drive taken. This year, the Nashville event logged a 51-percent increase over last year’s miles, resulting in a donation amount of $7,602 credited to the Nashville-area dealership.
Race ya for confirmation slips
In the world’s biggest automotive story this week, acceleration has nothing to do with horsepower but with P/E ratios as the combined DaimlerChrysler hit the New York and Frankfurt, Germany, stock exchanges Tuesday with the world’s first “global ordinary shares.” The shares, similar to common stock, represent only the most conspicuous tip of the unfathomably large financial iceberg that this global merger represents. Whether they’re car buffs or not, savvy stock traders the world over are watching these new shares with a keen eye. And as it turns out, the price/earnings ratio may indeed be the key to this investment vehicle: According to The Wall Street Journal, the opening-day P/E for these new global shares was about 10.5, which is high for the Big Three automakers in Detroit but relatively low for their European competitors. Accordingly, says one analyst, “many investors haven’t yet decided whether it is a U.S. auto stock that looks fairly valued or a bargain among European car companies.”
Couch potatoes hit the fast lane
It’s not enough anymore, it seems, to keep your eyes on the road. Now Nissan intends to transform its cleverly updated Quest minivan (reviewed here Oct. 8) into a rolling storage bin for couch potatoes. Appearing as a standard-equipment item almost as an afterthought, the “EZ Fit entertainment console” is an aftermarket bolt-in product that features a five-inch liquid crystal display television and videocassette player. In an unusual promotion announced last week, Nissan is offering the unit free of charge to customers who buy or lease a ’99-model Quest before Feb. 1, 1999. The unit, valued at $995 installed, fits between the driver and front-passenger captain’s chairs and incorporates a wireless remote control, 4-inch built-in speaker, built-in antenna, two headphone jacks, two audio/video input jacks for games or a camcorder, and an integrated drink holder. An additional quirk to the deal is Nissan’s decision to have the console shipped directly to qualifying customers, along with a certificate for free installationby whom is not specified.
Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com, or by fax at (615) 385-2930.
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