These Sport Utes Are Standouts

Does the world really need another sport-utility vehicle? More than 30 models are on the road today, from the pint-sized Honda CR-V to the elephantine Chevy Suburban. But the newest entrants, the Mercedes-Benz ML320 and Chrysler's Dodge Durango, are among the most exciting SUVs in the market. As different as filet mignon and a double-decker cheeseburger, these two should satisfy consumers hungry for a sport-ute that stands out from the pack. The only problem: Both vehicles are in short supply. The ML320 in particular is just about sold out through the end of the year, meaning most buyers face a wait of several months.

The ML320 looks and feels like no other light truck around. The German luxury carmaker stretched itself by developing its first SUV from scratch rather than basing it on an existing platform. It also chose to build the ML320 at a new factory in Alabama.

The design is worthy of the three-pointed star on the grill. The ML320's rounded front and oversized headlamps are a dramatic departure from the truck-like looks of most SUVs. While the squared-off rear makes it appear small, the ML320 is wider and taller than its chief rivals, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer. Interior space is comparable to the competition, but the ML320 has a bit more cargo capacity.

Performance is what you would expect from a Mercedes. The 3.2-liter V-6 engine pushes out 215 horsepower, and the ride at highway speeds is serene. It handles superbly in corners, but the brakes on my test-drive vehicle did squeal in sudden stops. Despite its genteel road manners, the ML320 is no lightweight on rugged terrain. It features full-time, all-wheel drive that directs power to the wheels requiring the most traction.

ELEGANT TOUCH. The interior is both functional and fancy. Gauges are easy to read, the six-way leather seats are firm but comfortable, and wood trim lends an elegant touch to the dashboard and door panels. But it's not perfect. Window and exterior mirror buttons are clustered in a center console rather than conveniently on the door. Why the headlight controls are on a steering-column stalk instead of the dash is beyond me. Yet, all in all, this is one fine package--and beautifully priced at just under $34,000.

The Durango, by contrast, wears its blue collar like a badge of honor. More than 70% of its components are carried over from the Dodge Dakota pickup truck, and Durango sports the same brawny front end as Dakota and its big brother, the Ram.

What makes Durango a welcome addition to the SUV segment is its size. It fills a vacant space--bigger than the ML320, Ford Explorer, and Chevy Blazer, yet smaller than theFord Expedition and Chevy Tahoe. Durango, with a $550 option for a third row of seats, can accommodate eight passengers. And because Chrysler raised the roof slightly in Durango's rear, there is more headroom in the back row.

Durango is equipped with either a 5.2-liter or a 5.9-liter V-8. A 3.9-liter V-6 is set to come next year. The suspension has been tuned to give Durango a smoother ride than Dakota. It steers nimbly and brakes sharply, although only the rear brakes are antilock. You can easily shift on the fly from two-wheel to four-wheel drive, and during a drive through a rocky stretch of Texas hill country, the Durango handled the steep trail with ease.

The interior has all the right stuff. The seats in the second row fold neatly to allow access to the third row. Heat and air-conditioning vents are well-placed to keep every rider comfortable. Storage is good, and gauges and controls are user-friendly. At a base price of about $28,000, Durango offers a lot for the money. It and the ML320 prove that even in the most crowded segments of the market, there's always room for well-designed new vehicles.

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