The original ML Class was a turning point for Mercedes. It was the German luxury brand’s first foray into a fast-growing SUV market, designed from the ground up specifically for the American market and built in Alabama of all places (cue banjo).It was also the first truly dodgy Mercedes in terms of quality (cue banjo) but that didn’t top it boosting Mercedes’ US sales from 90,844 in 1996 to 170,245 by 1998, the first full year of production. It was also one of the first big off-roaders that didn’t actually drive like a coal truck.
As a result, the ML etched itself a place in automotive history and inspired a raft of similar vehicles like the BMW X5, Lexus RX300 and the Porsche Cayenne, to name but a few. Its replacement is unlikely to be as influential. For a start, it arrives just as America is turning its back on the SUV in favour of smaller, more efficient vehicles. It also comes at a time when the much-hyped crossover vehicle is starting to take hold.
Although the ML could, really, be classed as a crossover because of its monocoque chassis and car-like dynamics, Mercedes’ own upcoming R-Class offers more space and versatility in a chunky but less overtly rugged body. It also faces competition from the smaller and nimbler BMW X3, not to mention the Infiniti FX, Nissan Murano, Volvo XC90, Range Rover Sport and a variety of other multi activity vehicles from the likes of Subaru, Chrysler, Ford, Jeep, Cadillac and Audi. In the face of such diverse and talented competition, the ML needs to be good. Very good, in fact. It’s off to a good start in the looks department. The new ML may be 150mm longer and 71mm wider, with a massive 95mm of extra wheelbase, but it just looks so much tidier and less blobby than the old model. It helps, of course, that it’s half-a-centimetre lower than the outgoing car so proportionally it looks much more svelte. But let’s give the ever bolder Mercedes’ designers their dues.
It’s still unmistakeably an ML-Class, but where the old model had flat shapes and a glum bum, the new cars is all curves and angles and muscular shapes. The flanks have shoulders, the wheel arches bulge and the bonnet flows. The overall effect is a car that’s much more compact, visually, and therefore it looks more sporty and fun. It’s arguably better looking in ML350 form where the front grille and bits of plastic trim are black. The chrome gob on the ML500 looks like a cheese grater. The ML may have a bigger foot print but it slices through the air with grater (my little joke there) efficiency– the CD rating drops from a wardrobe-like 0.40 to an arrow-esque 0.34.It’s also a few kilos lighter than the outgoing model: The old ML 350 weighed a considerable 2185 kg while the new model is 2060 kg. It’s still not exactly a feather weight but that is the equivalent of removing a 20 stone man (or woman) from your passenger seat.
Combine that with newer and more efficient engines and you can see why fuel economy improves by 11% even though there’s more performance and lower emissions. On paper, the M-Class is better in every way. It’s a lot better inside too. Apart from the extra room, the whole design of the interior is much improved compared to the older ML or the C, E and S-Classes. There’s a refreshing simplicity to its appearance that you don’t find in many vehicles anymore. The dials are unfussy and ridiculously easy-to-read. The centre console is light on buttons, easy on the eyes. It’s a cosy cock pit augmented with reasonably tasteful wood trim and the occasional design flourish such as the grab-beams that flank the cup holders and which are repeated on the doors. And it’s as pleasant to use as itis to look at. The big chunky gear selector is gone, you’ll notice. It lives on the steering column now and is more like an indicator stalk than a column shifter.
It takes a few seconds to get used to it but after that, you forget it’s there. (I also suspect it means the old manual 270 CDi is being dropped.) The centre console doesn’t make much use of the extra real estate but it certainly looks sharp without the lever poking up. It also helps that the whole dashboard is very clean and uncluttered. For example, there’s a (shock!) knob to control the temperature, a (gasp!) rocker switch for the fan and you direct air to the various vents by hitting the (wow!) corresponding button. Compared the button-fest that is CLS interior, it’s a delight. That’s not to say there’s no sophistication there. It’s got a full trip computer and Satellite Navigation and all the basics a modern luxury vehicle need but it’s not over loaded with pointless functions. Shame it’s not up to the standards of BMW or Audi in terms of plastics and construction. Otherwise, it’s a winner. Out on the open road, the ML 350 is a decent, if not spectacular, performer. Its 3.5-litre four-valve V6 engine produces 268 bhp and 350NM of torque, which is enough for a 0-100 kph time of 8.4 seconds and top speed of 215 kph.
The numbers are a bit deceiving, though, because on the open road the ML doesn’t feel that perky. That’s not surprising given its weight though I’m beginning to thing thatMercedes’7speed automatic is as much of a hindrance as itis a help to performance. It’s constantly hunting for gears and while the changes are very smooth it’s shifting cogs way too often for my taste. The upshot of the transmission is respectable economy - 11.5 litres/100 km is a small appetite for such a hefty lass provided you give her too much stick. Throw the ML at a few corners and there’s some definite body roll and squealing of tyres. That’s just the ML’s way of telling you it’s not really designed to be kicked around in such a fashion.
The 17-inch wheels are wrapped in 235/65 R 17 all-season tyres, which might explain the rolling and the squealing, so I think some slightly more aggressive rubber would probably show off the double wishbone front and four link rear suspension a little better. The ride quality is excellent for such a heavy machine though at motorway speeds there’s a bit of tyre and wind noise to intrude on the serenity. The ML’s rack and-pinion steering is, again, more than acceptable in terms of responsiveness and feedback for a vehicle of this class, but in American spec at least there’s a bit too much over assistance. I didn’t get a chance to try it in the wet, which is where the permanent all-wheel drive system and traction control comes into its own, nor did I try to smash it into anything to test the standard ESP and four airbags. Side airbags aren’t standard on US models, but probably will be on Irish cars.
MERCEDES ML 350
Engine 3498cc V6, 268bhp, 350Nm torque
Boot Capacity 551-litres
Acceleration 0-100km/h 8.4 secs
Top Speed 215km/h
Price €70,000 est
Transmission Seven-speed A/T four-wheel drive
Economy 8.4 litres/100km (33.6mpg)