Of Sport Utes and Brutes

Time, again, to play King of the Hill.

The latest round of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) arrives bigger, brawnier, faster, and more sophisticated than ever.

Two of the latest bruisers come from manufacturers not usually associated with each other - Dodge, with its new Durango, and Mercedes-Benz, with its cutting-edge ML320.

Both promise to deliver rugged profits to the automakers this year, financial analysts say. And buyers can boast of driving the trendiest SUVs on the road.

Both qualify as mid-size, but occupy the high end of that category.

And both underscore the lasting love affair Americans have with SUVs in almost any guise.

Some say it's because modern urbanites want to feel closer to nature. Others say people, especially women, like the security they feel from riding high above other cars.

But Americans also like hauling stuff around - kids to soccer, groceries home from the store, camping/skiing gear to the mountains, maybe the family dog or boat.

Today's downsized front-drive cars lack necessary the space, and minivans lack the power of mid-size sport-utes, especially in the mountains.

So Americans are shunning cramped sedans for SUVs, the biggest of which size up identically, in space, to 1950s-era station wagons. These two popular newcomers are a notch smaller.

Here's a look at this year's most promising new SUVs:

Mercedes-Benz ML320

The ML320 marks several firsts for Mercedes.

It's the company's first sport utility for the US and its first vehicle built here.

Mercedes also has listened closely, in recent years, to American car buyers, and one result is its first vehicle priced head-to-head with products from Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.

Starting at $33,950, the base Mercedes costs $140 more than a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited and $400 more than a Ford Explorer Limited.

But the ML320s real breakthrough is not price but ride. This big truck travels as smoothly and lightly as the company's luxury sedans. And while it feels tippy, it also hustles through corners as nimbly as some sports cars.

The V-6 engine not only delivers lively acceleration but qualifies the M-class as a low-emission vehicle.

So far, the M-class comes only one way: with a newly designed 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 engine, five-speed automatic transmission, and full-time four-wheel-drive system that works well both on and off road.

Next fall, Mercedes should introduce the ML430, a gussied-up M-class with a new V-8 engine.

The ML320 also has few options. Power windows and door locks, air conditioning, and most frills come standard. A $4,000 option package includes power leather seats, a sunroof, and wood trim. Other packages give the M-class a tough, off-road look and seven-passenger seating.

Those extra seats take up most of the cargo room, which is already awkward in the five-passenger version. The Mercedes is taller than its competition, but has less floor space in back. So if you have too much cargo, you may have to stack it.

The odd cargo space is a non-issue with buyers, though. Dealers boast waiting lists as long as a year. Mercedes plans a 30-percent production increase to ease the crunch.

Dodge Durango

Where Mercedes hopes to woo buyers with car-like handling, braking, and ride, Chrysler targets the traditional sport-utility buyer with greater towing capacity, more horsepower, and bigger cargo room.

That's not to say the Durango isn't sophisticated. It has better road manners than many older SUVs. The ride is comfortable, if not as controlled as it could be. The steering is easy and precise. But twisty roads still inspire slower speeds and extra caution.

In daily use, the Durango's main advantage is size. Bigger than the Explorer, it has room for two more passengers in back. And smaller than Ford's new Expedition behemoth, it will fit in almost any garage.

All seven passengers find plenty of room, though long-legged adults in back won't stay happy for long. The middle seat is too low, and the rear seat too close behind it.

Both seats fold to make a cavernous cargo floor.

And the floor is flat, where the Mercedes leaves a large gap (only partly covered by removable plastic panels) between the folded seats and the floor.

Durango offers two four-wheel-drive systems, one part-time, and one with both full and part-time modes.

Base price for the Durango with a V-6 is $25,610. But so far, Dodge is selling only V-8 models starting at $27,300. Add the usual bells and whistles, and that puts the tab on par with the Mercedes: $31,945 for the tested model.

In May or June, Dodge should drop in the V-6, plus an even bigger V-8.

The price for Durango's brawn comes at the gas pump, where it costs $30 to fill the tank every 325 miles or so. That's just under 15 miles per gallon.

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