That bit of psychological auto trickery may already be familiar to other drivers out there, but believe me when I tell you these full-time M-Class drivers might be on to something: The new M-Class is one alluring SUV.
Like the ML350, the silver ML550 I tested had a big, bold grille with a large three-pointed star in it. This predominant feature lets everyone on the road know some money was spent on this SUV. I'm not sure if that was the intended effect, but if you want status, the M-Class has it displayed right out front.
The emblem doesn't detract from the overall styling, though; everything about this SUV is big and bold. Unlike the middle-of-the-road previous generation, the current M-Class can stand out on the road. Small details like carved taillights and numerous creases along the body show that Mercedes spent some time on the design. Silver is, of course, the most boring of car colors, but matched with the large exhaust outlets, the metal-topped sideboards and that grille, it looked great. During the 10 days I had this car, I passed a number of models in black, white and dark red that were all equally striking.
Inside, the cabin is dark and elegant — dark because the black leather in our test car covered every inch of interior space. There's little room left for the dark wood accents, which I thought were too subtle in this color scheme. Gray and tan leather are also available, as is aluminum trim.
The nice thing about being able to afford the ML550 is the 382-horsepower V-8 under its hood. Calling this SUV "fast" is an understatement. Mercedes says it goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. That's muscle-car fast. This muscle SUV had me flooring it whenever I could to get the engine to come to life. Even so, I'm sure even my most enthusiastic driving didn't put the full power of the ML550 to the test.
There are shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel so drivers can select any of the automatic transmission's seven gears manually at any time. The location seems odd in that they're essentially hidden from view, but ergonomically they make a lot more sense than the funky column-mounted gear-selector stalk you use to move from Park to Neutral to Drive to Reverse. I'm not a huge fan of paddles if they don't do a better job of accelerating than just plain mashing the gas pedal, but I surprisingly found both methods of joyriding enjoyable in the M-Class.
The other big surprise was at the pump, where I realized I was getting more than 16 mpg during all this pedal-mashing and lots of stop-and-go rush hour traffic. I logged almost 1,000 miles during my long loan, and my gas mileage stayed at that 16-plus-mpg number. That's dead-on with the EPA's 13/18 mpg (city/highway) ratings. Sure, you're pumping premium into the ML, but these numbers are quite good for the class, and especially for this much power. On open highway trips of 50-plus miles, the trip computer had me in the low-20-mpg range.
Handling was superb. All models feature all-wheel drive, and the ML550 has 19-inch wheels and tires that contributed to an extremely comforting, planted feeling at all times. The M-Class also has an optional selectable suspension that moves between automatic, Sport and Comfort modes. Many other luxury cars on the market feature similar setups, but few work quite as transparently as the M-Class'. The Comfort setting did make the ride smoother on highways, turning this otherwise bruising SUV into a great cruiser. The wife almost enjoyed a long commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic because it was so comfortable. When you hit the off-ramp, though, you'll want it in Sport mode, as the suspension stiffens and turns the handling quotient up a bit. The bumps also make themselves well known in this setting.
I found myself in Comfort mode — why anyone would choose the default mode, I'm not sure — during long commutes and with passengers in the car. At all other times, I drove in Sport.
The one failing in the M-Class' performance repertoire is its braking — I'm not sure how you build such a powerful vehicle and don't give it the most responsive brakes possible. The 13-inch ventilated four-wheel disc brakes stopped the car, but the mushy brake pedal feel led to poor response at almost every stop sign, light or congested road. It usually takes a day or two to get the feel of the brakes in the car you're testing because every car brakes differently. After 10 days, though, I was still jerking passengers' heads as I rushed to avoid possible fender-benders at every turn. That's a feeling you don't want to have when piloting such an otherwise-fine performance machine.
The ML350 costs roughly $10,000 less than the ML550 and features a less intriguing 268-hp V-6 engine and 15/20 mpg mileage estimate. I'm not one to say go for broke, but it would take a lot for me to give up the V-8's power.
As we cram more technology into our homes, cars and palms, the ergonomics of using said advancements should be getting better. Mercedes has a few elegant systems in cars like the S-Class and new C-Class that allow the driver to play with all the onboard technology with little headache. Not so in the M-Class. The LCD screen in the easy-to-reach center dash is perfect for a touch-screen interface ... except it doesn't have one.
Instead, you have to use buttons lining both sides of the screen that correspond to functions displayed on the screen. Those functions change with every screen as you move through radio, navigation and onboard computer settings. There's also a small joystick on the far side of the dash that can move the cursor around the screen, but it's difficult to use. I found myself looking for ways to work around the system most of the time, and after a few attempts at inputting directions I simply gave up. True, we should all spend time reading the owner's manual, and owners who live with the car will eventually learn the system, but a vast majority of the cars I test are intuitive enough to use without referencing the large book stashed in the glove compartment. Strangely enough, with the optional iPod connector installed in the glove box, the owner's manual no longer fit there anyway.
The stereo system was just adequate; it didn't hold a candle to the optional systems in the C-Class and S-Class.
With all that power under the M-Class' hood, along with its sporty nature and comfortable cabin, it's easy to forget this is still an SUV. That means the M-Class better do a good job of hauling things. Indeed, the rear cargo area is large, flat and quite tall. The figures come in at 29.4 cubic feet with the rear seats in place and 72.4 cubic feet with them folded. That is considerably bigger than the BMW X5, which comes in at 21.9 and 61.8 cubic feet, respectively. What's also nice is that this room is usable. I fit a golf bag straight into the cargo hold with the club heads against the backseat and the bottom of the bag pointing outward. The M-Class could easily swallow a foursome and their clubs, and I don't want to imagine the vacation that would completely fill the cargo hold with luggage.
To fold the rear seats flat you have to flip the seat cushions up then fold the seatbacks down into the open space. This is an antiquated method I've grown to despise, as other SUVs in every price range are finding simpler, more elegant ways to do the same thing. On the plus side, the resulting extended cargo floor is completely flat.
As it should be, the M-Class is full of standard safety features like an electronic stability system, antilock brakes, traction control, side curtain airbags, and side-impact airbags for the front and rear seats.
The M-Class has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick award, which is the institute's top safety designation earned by high marks in frontal-, side- and rear-impact crash tests. To date, the only other luxury SUVs in this class to earn that designation are the Acura MDX and Volvo XC90.
M-Class in the Market
It's a bitter pill for a reviewer to swallow when you see a test car do so many things so right, yet fall short in a few key areas. Most shoppers — even most car reviewers — won't get to spend as much time with the M-Class as I did, so I feel confident in saying that with the M-Class' flaws in its braking and navigation system, I would lean toward the BMW X5 as the better performer and daily driver. That said, though, the Mercedes' safety ratings, flashy styling and overall comfort are mighty alluring.
You should also consider the price. While the M-Class is priced almost identically or a bit less than the X5, it can get pricey when it's well-equipped. With all its fancy add-ons, our tester hovered near the $70,000 mark. I used the Mercedes website to build a less-equipped ML550 with the basic Premium package (there are three to choose from), a cold-weather package, a six-disc CD changer and iPod integration — you know, the necessities. That took the $53,175 starting price up to $60,365. An identically equipped ML350 is $50,370 and still delivers the comfort, utility and looks of the peppier ML550.
These are mighty tricky price-points to be playing at, though, and Mercedes needs to be at the top of its game to beat out the competition from BMW, Land Rover and Audi. It's almost there, but winds up just shy of beating the BMW.
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