Mercedes-Benz has a respectable line-up of SUVs, ranging from the small GLK and medium-sized ML to the large GL and retro G-Wagen. But I’ve always found it a little difficult to associate the prestige marque with off-roading. I think of it as bringing a Birkin bag on an Everest expedition, or wearing your Manolo Blahniks on a safari trip.
The new Mercedes-Benz ML350 M-Class, however, has changed my mind. At a challenging off-road course in Saalfelden, Austria – where other less serious off-roaders might have had to go around the huge potholes, mud pools 60cm deep and inclines of up to 35 degrees – the unstoppable Mercedes simply drove over the obstacles and across to the other side.
Making it a piece of cake (or maybe a “mud pie”) is the optional On & Off Road package. Previously, there was one default on-road mode and at most two off-road settings, all designed to accommodate a wide spectrum of conditions.
With the new model, there are now six different modes, each a turn of a rotary knob away. The two off-road modes respond to terra firma of varying difficulty, automatic mode takes care of everyday driving, while the on-road modes cater to sporty driving, winter driving or when towing a trailer.
Airmatic height-adjustable air suspension (also optional) with adaptive damping further enhances the Mercedes-Benz ML350’s off-road prowess. Its body height can be substantially adjusted by up to 90mm when negotiating undulating ground. The Downhill Speed Regulator (DSR), while not new to the SUV sector, does come in handy when driving down a slope, but you must learn to trust the system first.
It is reassuring to know that the Mercedes-Benz ML350 does not falter in the face of Amazonian terrain, but how does it square up in the suburban jungle?
We tested the petrol-powered ML350 4Matic BlueEfficiency on winding rural lanes and long, open highways from Germany to Austria, between Munich and Kitzbuehel. It drives and handles like a saloon, and the only reminder that you are in an SUV is the elevated driving position.
Go-everywhere versatility is provided by the permanent all-wheel drive; a smooth ride is offered by the standard steel suspension and its new selective damping feature, which adjusts the dampers according to the driving situation. Performance-wise, the 306bhp from the 3.5-litre V6 effortlessly propels the vehicle forward – and quite quickly, too. Around bends, gradual or sharp, the car’s Active Curve dynamic stabilisation almost completely eliminates my pet peeve with big, heavy SUVs – body roll.
Active Curve is a special anti-roll bar assembly comprising pumps, valves and chambers, and its aim is to keep the vehicle horizontal as far as possible, especially at high speeds.
As with all modern Mercs, the steering is easy to twirl thanks to Direct-Steer, which is electrically driven yet does not compromise steering feedback. Coupled with the tightest turning circle in its segment, the M-Class should have no problem manoeuvring within town constraints.
Deep in the forest, the animals don’t give a hoot if your SUV looks like something from the prehistoric age. But in our concrete jungle, an SUV is very much a lifestyle accessory, so it has to look the part. The new Mercedes-Benz ML350 offers a combination of refined elegance and rugged masculinity, a clue to its dual-faceted ability.
Elements I consider successful on other current-generation Mercedes models, such as the pronounced grille adorned with the signature tristar and chrome-trimmed LED daytime running lamps integrated into the front bumper, make their appearance on the Mercedes-Benz ML350 with as much success, even if the shape of the headlamps appears to have come off the pre-facelift Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
A rearward-tapering roof line reduces the overall bulk, while a big rear spoiler and chrome roof rails add to the sporty image of this sports utility vehicle.
The interior oozes luxe and proves that no modern comfort needs to be sacrificed regardless of where you may take the Mercedes-Benz ML350. It drives like a saloon and the cabin feels like one, too.
The evolution and improvement over earlier ML interiors is considerable. The sweeping curves extend beyond the dashboard and continue along the inside of the door panels, while the dials, knobs and steering wheel convey a modern persona (although the information display between the two central dials has yet to “catch up” with the colour screen available in some other Mercedes-Benz models.)
The leather, aluminium (or wood), matte and glossy black surfaces, and silver outlines come together to create a harmonious composition and evoke a premium feel.
Ultimately, an SUV needs to fulfil its practical calling. In the case of the new Mercedes-Benz ML350, BlueEfficiency measures such as the 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission, the Eco start/stop function and improved aerodynamics optimise fuel efficiency to make owning an SUV in the city a little less environmentally irresponsible. Luggage capacity of up to 2010 litres allows you to haul stuff to your heart’s content.
The seats are relaxing, even on long drives, and there has been an improvement in cockpit ergonomics – for example, the release for the centre console’s cubby is now located on top and no longer to the side, negating the need for a wrist twist to open the box. There is no lack of compartments in the cabin, but drawers under the seats would have been useful.
The latest Mercedes-Benz ML350 is a compelling all-rounder. You probably need never put its off-road talent to the test, but the knowledge that you could if you wanted to is good enough.
Mercedes-Benz ML350 3.5 (A)
ENGINE 3498cc, 24-valves, V6
MAX POWER 306bhp at 6500rpm
MAX TORQUE 370Nm at 3500-5250rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 143.7bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 7-speed automatic with manual select
0-100KM/H 7.6 seconds
TOP SPEED 235km/h
CONSUMPTION 11.4km/L (combined)
PRICE INCL. COE To be announced (ETA Singapore 2012 Q2)
Check out the Mercedes-Benz ML’s successor, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class