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1999 4x4 of the Year: Mercedes-Benz ML430

1999 Mercedes-Benz ML430

Mercedes-Benz ML430

•Va-voom-that's power
•Dead-on handling
•Well engineered inside and out

•Four-wheel-drive electronic traction system is scary
•Minivan looks
•Too much pedal travel before brakes work

It was year two for us to saddle up behind the wheel of a Benz, and there was still no making nice with its styling or four-wheel-drive system. However, there was much embracing of the new 4.3L V-8, which, combined with excellent pavement cornering, allowed it to generate some potent g's, whether zipping around town or on straight-and-narrow highways. But it certainly can be said that the ML430 did not have the best of both worlds. While it was glorious at clenching asphalt corners, the sheer sight of dirt caused it to tremble.

It's not that the M-Class makers haven't designed a well-thought-out program-the advanced electronic four-wheel traction control system, which has open diffs in both axles and the transfer case, reacts to tire slip by electronically applying the brakes only to the wheel with low traction, thereby transferring torque to the tires firmly on the ground. It does that just fine in nonchallenging stuff, so nonenthusiasts should find it undetectable and smooth.

But because the system is activated by throttle, it's counter to a four-wheeler's tendency to apply the brake to modulate power in low-speed terrain, and to make matters worse, touching the brake overrides the traction-control system. In other words, you have to gas it over the bumpies until the traction control engages, at which point the wheel speed will cause the MB to lurch forward-that means you need to know exactly when to hit the brake to avoid full launch. So with such comments as "Horrible," "Beyond terrible," and "No! No! No!," you can begin to realize why the ML430 choked so badly at the off-road portions of the Ride & Drive.

Unfortunately, it continued as the odds-on loser off road because of its zero ground clearance, which forced it to take a beating on bouncy fire roads. Also not helping matters was that the open differentials caused an unusual circumstance while compression braking down a rutted hill: If one tire left the ground-and one often did-all the engine's braking power went to the tire with no traction and compression braking was lost.

But let's leave the dirt for a moment. When this SUV was pleased with the road conditions, it didn't hesitate with the power, tracked straight, had super-responsive steering, was extremely quiet, had smooth shifting (despite its awkward shifter maze), and stuck like Doublemint to the highway. Since it did all that so well and presented no driving challenges for voters, there was ample time to note its unnatural appointments placement, lack of visibility, odd design of having the jack stored in the CD changer compartment, and those really comfortable seats.

Bottom line
Perfect for pavement and the performance-minded.


Manufacturer Mercedes-Benz
Model ML430
Base Price $43,750
Price as Tested $46,965
Options as Tested Brilliant silver metallic
paint; gray leather; Bose premium audio system with six-disc CD; glass sunroof; and factory-installed CD changer.

Type 90-degree V-8
Displacement (liters/cubic inches) 4.3/260.3
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.54x3.30
Compression Ratio 10.01
Induction Type Sequential fuel injection
and electronic throttle control
Fuel Requirement/Capacity (gallons) 87 Octane
Unleaded regular/19
SAE Peak Horsepower 268 @ 5,500 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 288 @ 3,000-4,500 rpm

Type Five-speed electronic automatic
Model W5A3OD
Ratios First: 3.59:1; Second: 2.19:1; Third: 1.41:1;
Fourth: 1.00:1; Fifth: 0.83:1; Reverse: 3.16:1

Transfer Case
Type Full-time two-speed
Model Borg-Warner 44-09
Low-Range Ratio 2.64:1

Front Type IFS
Rear Type Independent
Hubs NA
Ratio 3.46:1

Front Double wishbone/control arms/torsion bar
Rear Double wishbone/control arms/torsion bar

Type Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 3.6/NA
Turning Radius (feet) 37

Size (inches) 17x8
Material Alloy

Size P275/55R17
Brand Dunlop Grand Trek

Brake System
Front 13-inch vented discs
Rear 13-inch vented discs

Advertised GVWR (pounds) 6,005

As Tested (mpg) 15.38

Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 17.19 @ 81.60

60-0 mph (feet) 114.65

Dimensions (inches)
Wheelbase 111
Overall Length 178.5
Overall Width 86
Overall Height 70.75
Front/Rear Track 61.5/61
Front/Rear Overhang 18.125/21
Minimum Front Ground Clearance 8