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The Ultimate SUV?

With its new M-class, Mercedes hopes to revolutionize sport utility vehicles. They may be on to something.
By Glenna Whitley |

ON Saturdays, Park Place Motorcars has a waiting list in increments of 15 minutes for people who want to drive the hottest new sport utility vehicle in town (and in America): the new M-class Mercedes, which rolled into showrooms in September.

After driving it over one weekend, I found out why.

Since having my first child 13 years ago, I’ve had two station wagons and one minivan. But as my current vehicle approaches 150,000 miles (we like to drive cars into the ground), I’ve been eyeing a new SUV. My wagons have been great for driving carpools, and I loved the visibility that came with my minivan. But pulling that minivan onto the freeway felt like driving a turtle on amphetamines, and none of my cars has been great for my self-esteem. Let’s face it: There’s no way you can feel sexy in a mom-mobile.

Sexy is no problem with the Mercedes M-class-the perfect mom-mobile, especially if mother’s other vehicle is a Harley Davidson.

It only seats five, so the Mercedes SUV doesn’t compete with a Suburban when it comes to hauling kids. (But hey, you’re ready to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have enough seat belts to drive the entire soccer team.”) A little boxy, it nonetheless has a certain sportiness the Ford Explorer lacks. And it has more cargo space (85.4 cubic feet) than either an Explorer (81.6) or a Grand Cherokee (79.3).

Built in a new Alabama plant, the M-class is four-wheel drive all the time, with low-range gearing that allows you to do steep climbing at the push of a button and electronic traction that applies to all four wheels.

One of the goals when Mercedes undertook the creation of an SUV was to have a vehicle that was not only great for off-road driving, says Chuck Rollins of Park Place, “but also a great vehicle for the 95 percent of the people whose idea of going off-road is parking on the median at the Galleria.” Hmmm, wonder what it would do in the current traffic jam we call Central Expressway? I didn’t take it into the Trinity River bottoms for a test of its off-road capability, but it mastered the potholes in East Dallas just fine.

In terms of safety, the M-class not only has two front air bags, but side air bags as well. (This isn’t necessarily good for carting kids around; a warning sticker says children under 12 should not sit in the front seat.) Not designed around a pick-up frame, as was the Suburban, it drives more like a sedan than like a truck, something my friends complain about their SUVs.

The anticipation over what Mercedes first called an “all-activity vehicle” has been so high, says Mark Schwanz, new car sales manager at Park Place Motorcars, the dealership took its first order for the Mclass on May 29,1996; they had sold 327 by mid-October 1997. Many buyers are women. With a sticker price of $35,000 to $40,000 fully loaded, Schwanz says it appeals to people who’ve never bought a Mercedes, as well as loyalists.

The big problem? You can’t get one, at least for four to six months. Only 35,000 will be sold in the United States this year, a drop in the bucket compared to the market of the reigning SUV king, the Explorer. Schwanz will take your $ 1,000 deposit and call you when it comes in. (You think they’re going to come off that sticker price when there’s a waiting list? Hah!) And those who want to take the macho look all the way with a black M-class may have to wait even longer; there’s been a problem with the black paint supply, Schwanz says.

The M-class may not be the most convenient mom-mobile for women with more than 1.7 kids. But after driving it for two days, I urge all single mothers to give it a look. We’re talking major guy magnet.

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