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Mercedes-Benz M-Class - 2005 SUV Buyer's Guide

by Martha Hindes

Mercedes-Benz M-Class
Mercedes-Benz M-Class

As Mercedes-Benz prepares to launch a brand new (all U.S.-built) M-Class sport utility for next year, it faces the phase-out dilemma of any auto maker on the verge of introducing a new, improved successor. The question: What to do with 2005s? The answer, in typical Teutonic style, is to add something so special that it won't go unnoticed.

M-B's solution for its waning 2005 M-Class days comes in Special Edition wrapping, the newest in a stable of five- or seven-seater M model variations that have spiced up the scene periodically. The newly-badged version gets minor interior and exterior tweaks, including body-colored running boards, "unique" 17-inch wheels, a power dome hood, silver painted chrome grille and polished aluminum roof rails. Add smoked/darkened tail lamp lenses, door handle chrome tips and Pewter Metallic as a new color, and the appearance becomes downright spiffy.

Inside, are luxurious burled birch and walnut wood trims. Sports seats have thick side bolsters (a rally car in disguise here?), and chrome-ringed instrument cluster. It retains safety and performance features: Four-wheel electronic traction control with electronic stability as standard, optional low-range downhill traction control, available DVD nav system. V-6 or V-8 power kicks in 232 or 288 horses, respectively. A five-speed auto trans features Touch Shift for manual override. And standard Tele-Aid communications provides emergency help, vehicle diagnostics, internet access and concierge services.

The original M-class was a shift toward a midsize sport truck for the European auto luxury brand, and M-B tested the waters in a rather unorthodox way during planning. Visitors at auto shows filled out Mercedes-Benz SUV wish-lists, then subsequently saw a teaser silhouette on a wall.

The Special Edition won't peel one's face back, as suspected with the previous racing tradition ML55 AMG. And some critics might challenge Mercedes-Benz's claim that the current body-on-frame model is "part luxury car, part mountain goat," and hint true off-road capabilities will improve with the redesigned '06. (But we found even the pre-facelift '90s original amazingly capable during torturous washboard tests. And the door opened and closed snugly with the vehicle hanging precariously at an angle.) That's nothing-to-be-sniffed-at character for a classic with an outgoing price range from the high 30s to mid-40s.