Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - M-class - ML350
No more foot-operated park brake, roomy interior, comfy seats, excellent dash, versatile cargo options, steering, handling, brakes, lusty V6 petrol, transmission
Room for improvement
Gear selector, suspension set-up, cabin plastics, inaccurate self-parking
20 Jul 2012
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS
THIRD time lucky isn’t something you might normally associate with a Mercedes-Benz, but the M-Class (ML) was certainly on its final strike prior to the latest generation.
When the homely original arrived in 1998, the notion of a Daimler-developed luxury SUV seemed sensational with the exception of the pioneering Range Rover, there really wasn’t a luxury 4x4 wagon on offer – not one with sedan-like road manners, anyway.
But nobody bargained on flaky quality, cruddy interiors, cumbersome dynamics or iffy reliability. More than any other Merc, the American-made ML came to symbolise how far off the rails Benz had strayed since the days Daimler ceased “over-engineering” its vehicles.
BMW, meanwhile, swooped in with the significantly superior X5. Sure, ML sales boomed globally, but marque traditionalists winced while many critics remained unconvinced.
The handsome 2005 follow-up was a much better all-rounder, but still suffered quality hiccups and wasn’t as appealing to drive as the X5. Plus, Lexus, Volvo and Porsche had joined the fray by then, and Audi wasn’t far away, making things just that much tougher for the ML.
Clearly, then, Mercedes needed to pull something special out of its box of tricks with the third ML, the new W166.
There’s a strong styling link with its predecessors, though the ruggedness of the outgoing model has been replaced with something a little fussier and altogether saggier. One onlooker quipped the ML350 test car looked like a Mercedes designed by Lexus. Ouch!
Moving onto the very Teutonic interior, it is an evolution of what’s gone on before – nothing extraordinary, just lots of black leather material and painted silver metallic trim, in a slightly austere way.
Visually as well as to the touch, it nevertheless represents a leap forward compared to the previous model.
Arguably the biggest revolution is the abolition of the horrid old foot-operated park brake for a new electronic device tucked away underneath the right-hand side of the dash.
Otherwise, Daimler has played it safe with a relatively timeless and simple fascia that will neither excite nor challenge anybody. Symmetry pretty much rules.
The instrument dials – a mix of classy mix of analogue and easy-on-the-eye digital – convey a surprisingly wide range of data in an easy and orderly manner, including sat-nav directions, radio station and Bluetooth contact information.
In the middle of the dash, a large central screen, as part of Mercedes’ COMAND media interface system that relies on a little lower toggle arrangement, does take a bit of time to acclimatise, but it then works seamlessly, with large, clear markings to help you navigate around the standard GPS, audio, media and telephone controls.
The lofty and flawless driving position ensures great forward vision, but thick side and rear pillars make you thankful that Benz fits visual as well as aural parking radar as standard. It takes the worry out of parking this beast.
Speaking of such technology, the best radar-controlled cruise control technology we have ever operated is available as an option, stopping and then restarting again more intuitively than any previous version.
A hefty centre console divides the car, adding to the feeling of space inside. There is ample stretching room, even if you’re tall and wide, with large front seats that still manage to be comfortable and supportive over a long-distance journey, despite their girth.
Similarly perched up high, the rear row occupants enjoy suitably spacious and salubrious surroundings, with the usual SUV accoutrements including face-level air vents, cupholders and overhead grab handles.
If you want to turn your ML into a van, each folding and reclining rear seat converts – with a bit of muscle – into a carpeted flat cargo area that nobody would ever want to sully with a wet and dirty dog.
An electric tailgate can be opened via a button on the door itself, remotely by the key fob, or by an interior switch.
The German engineers have worked hard to make the ML as comfortable, versatile and family friendly as possible, but there is still some work left.
For starters, the column-shift gear selector – a long-standing bugbear in some modern Mercs – is too readily confused for the indicator stalk and is therefore too easily knocked out of gear into neutral. There are guards against over-revving the engine or accidentally selecting reverse, but the fact that it is possible to disengage drive at speed is just astounding for such a safety-obsessed company.
We managed to regularly flummox the standard self-parking system, which would activate easily and intuitively enough but always misjudged the steering angle needed to avoid kerbing the tyres (though thankfully not the alloys on the ML350). Perhaps the technology isn’t used to Melbourne’s gutters.
Lastly, the under-seat material consists of the usual hard and horrible plastic that so blighted earlier models – and one of them came adrift after just a gentle nudge from an errant foot.
When you push the throttle, you would be hard-pressed to pick the engine as being ‘just’ a V6.
Smooth yet muscular from the moment your right foot feathers the pedal, the ML350 leaps into action with uncharacteristic vigour, and then keeps delivering its momentum well beyond legal limits.
Credit here must also go to the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, which always seems to be in the right ratio just at the right moment. There’s no shunting or hesitation, just response when you ask for it. And paddle shifters behind the steering wheel allow you to pretend it’s a manual until the novelty wears off and you never use them again.
A further plus was the consumption, which at 12.5L/100km won’t threaten diesels but won’t destroy the budget, either. Driven sensibly, it ought to fall much lower.
The steering is a happy compromise, straddling the fine lines between feeling substantial yet light, as well as responsive yet relaxed. It reflects the breadth of abilities engineered into this all-purpose nearly go-anywhere wagon.
As a result, while you wouldn’t exactly call the ML wieldy around town, it is a doddle to drive even in built-up areas, with a manoeuvrability that belies its significant mass.
However, unlike a Territory or X5, keen drivers won’t glean much fun from throwing the Mercedes around tight bends, even with the suspension set in Sport mode, because it feels too top-heavy.
While the grip on most surfaces is nothing short of tenaciously sticky and the body feels far more composed than it has any right to, there’s none of the flowing, car-like tautness that the local Ford and big BMW provide.
Carving up corners may seem incongruous for an SUV anyway, but our test vehicle rode on 20-inch alloys as part of the $6900 Sports Package option that looks smart and promises a certain level of athleticism.
We were not totally convinced of the suspension set-up in terms of ride comfort, either. It oscillates from sufficiently pliant to challengingly firm, depending on the setting, but we were loathe to choose ‘Comfort’ because at highway speeds it was too floaty, with a very discernible rocking motion. So we had to put up with the firmness and kept it in Normal or Sport.
Though we didn’t go off-road, we drove on plenty of gravel surfaces, which the Benz saw off with incredible ease – due in no small part to the clever electronics as well as the 202mm ground clearance.
More civilised than its patchy predecessor, the latest ML350 finally delivers exactly what you might expect of a Mercedes SUV, from the vastly improved family-friendly cabin to the toweringly capable and safe driving experience.
We would steer clear of the sports package, which includes AMG wheels and a body kit, despite the way they lift the styling, and possibly explore the excellent diesel options, even though there is very little wrong with the sweet and punchy V6 drivetrain.
If you love driving, there are more enticing options, for sure, but otherwise Mercedes finally hits the right note – and luckily on the third attempt – with the latest ML350.
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