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Rumble Seat 

I have your attention now, don't I? Before last week's biblical-style snowstorm, all my talk about torque, traction control, open differentials and all-wheel-drive seemed to many of you the dull maundering of a slightly clueless gearhead. Believe me, I understand. Like anyone, I divide the world into need-to-know and don't-need-to-know categories. In the latter camp I put the name of sitcom stars, organic chemistry and questions of life after death.

But now, I'm E.F. Hutton, aren't I? You want to know about sport-utilities and all-wheel-drive with an eagerness born out of post-traumatic cabin fever. Ah, allow me to bask in the attention.

Even in the minds of many who previously abhorred sport-utilities--and the hoggy suburbanism they represent--a switch has been flipped. When there is no milk in the fridge and no diapers on the baby, principle gives way to practicality without exception. I actually feel sort of sorry for all those committed environmentalists lining up this week to buy gas-guzzling sport-utilities. Their heads will probably explode.

I confess, I've had a bit of conversion experience myself. In the past I have argued that SUV purchases were unwarranted in a part of the country that sees snow about as frequently as Rome sees a new pope. Now I see that whatever price premium SUVs impose is worth it on that one morning when you are desperately frozen to your city street, ready to resort to cannibalism.

The good news is that you can have all-weather capability without selling your soul to the petrochemical devil. Allow me to tell you my snowy tale of triumph.

In one of my rare moments of intuition, I saw the snowstorm of the century coming, and I asked Mercedes-Benz if I could keep the 2000 model year ML430 an extra week. The company consented. The ML430 is a vastly improved version of M-B's original SUV, with a redesigned suspension, a richer and more elegant interior and superior fit and finish--all areas where the original ML320 was inadequate (used-car buyers, beware the early editions of the M-class).

Underneath, I knew, the ML430 used an all-wheel-drive system that split engine torque (the actual wheel-turning force) between the front and rear wheels. The vehicle has independent suspension, meaning that there is no solid axle uniting the front wheels or the rear wheels. I further understood that the M-class uses open differentials in the center, front and rear. Open differentials allow torque to be easily transferred from a slipping wheel to a wheel with grip. M-B uses a version of traction control to manage the system, braking the slipping wheel automatically, thereby redirecting power to the gripping wheels. There is also an electronically controlled low gear, a replacement for a typical low-speed transfer case on a four-wheel-drive system.

Its advanced engineering aside, the ML430 did not inspire a whole lot of confidence in me--particularly on the morning I awoke to find it buried in fender-deep snow. It was not, after all, a rootin'-tootin', stump-pulling 4x4, with big steel axles locked together and a grinding gear-fed transfer case. How tough could this pseudo-ute be?

Very tough. Amazingly tough. I started the ML and drove through the first mound of snow without the slightest hesitation. All day on Wednesday, the ML430 navigated snow that was literally up to the wheel arches and it never got stuck or even bogged down. Whenever one wheel lost traction, the other wheels fed off the unused torque and the ML motored on through.

In one snow-drifted neighborhood, at the bottom of a hill, a full-size Ford Bronco had become stuck. I hooked a tow strap to the tire carrier on the ML and pulled him out of the snow and up the hill. This, in a vehicle that has real walnut trim.

The ML has a couple of unexpected advantages. First, it's heavy, tipping the scales at more than 4,600 pounds. Second, it has 8.4 inches of ground clearance; moreover, because of its independent suspension, it doesn't have differential casings (those round things) hanging down. The bottom of the vehicle is flat, which allows it to skim over mounded snow.

Also, since the ML eschews locking diffs, it turns in a much tighter circle and with much less effort than a locked-down 4x4. In the snow, maneuverability is almost as important as grip.

Last, and perhaps most important, the ML is shod with superior mud and snow radials. Tires are a huge factor in traction, obviously. Here in the sunny South, people forget there is such a thing as all-terrain tires--until it snows.

I am utterly infatuated with the ML430, and I would put it up against any 4x4 in the snow.

Good for me, but what about you? Simply put, if you want the security of all-weather traction, you need not buy a gas-hogging SUV like a Suburban or an Expedition. Vehicles such as the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Impreza/Outback, the Audi A4/A6 Quattro, the Volvo V80, even Porsches, all feature efficient all-wheel-drive systems. Because of the lower ground clearances and street tires, these vehicles will not match an SUV's outright capability in the snow. However, in anything less than the storm of the century, all-wheel-drive cars and station wagons will get you where you need to go without undue guilt and cognitive dissonance.

You just have to ask yourself: Got milk?

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