The unique bid
Mercedes-Benz introduced its first luxury SUV, the popular ML or M-Class, in 1997 with a short cameo appearance in Jurassic Park. Stuttgart just pipped its main German rivals to the start and maintained a strong following for the soft 4×4 built in Alabama, USA.
Based on this car’s success and built on the same platform, they produced the bigger GL-Glass which is even more imposing, luxurious and accommodating. Extra-large families with extra-large wallets and a need for seven seats are encouraged to climb aboard the GL.
The third generation M-Class was recently launched and our ML350 BlueEfficiency 4Matic press demo brought a whole raft of changes with it. Its shape conforms to the current angular Mercedes design language with strong vertical lines and a blunt nose, pulled over the previous shape(s) to retain its unique look.
The interior features loads of new shapes which follow the company’s uncharacteristic bid for hip ‘n stylish. Big, shiny surfaces and a sporty steering wheel live next to contrast stitching and Merc’s new instrument cluster whose main dials start from the 6 o’clock position.
Should you have ignored the exterior, the cabin’s vastness will remind you how big this car really is. The seats are very comfortable, electrically adjustable with (front) memory functions and optional heating, visibility is good and the rear seats recline or fold flat completely to accommodate up to 2010L.
The huge boot has a lockable floor and will take four golf bags with ease. Material choice and quality is spot-on as we didn’t perceive a single rattle on our week-long testing regime. Most buttons and controls are easy to comprehend and simple to operate but there are a few exceptions.
In order to make room for two temperature-controlled cup holders, the gear selector moved onto the steering column (in fairness, it did so in the last generation and other Benz’) and its new location takes a while to get used to – I kept swiping my left hand through thin air every time I wanted to drive off.
Mercedes equips the ML with its comprehensive infotainment system including navigation, RDS radio, 6-CD in-dash CD changer, mp3/wma/aac capability, Bluetooth, USB and ipod connection. Optional extras include reversing camera, COMAND Online, rear entertainment and Harman Kardon Logic 7 system.
Last-named wasn’t always convincing and often produced sub-standard sounds, as if it was moody. Oh well. Perhaps it had just picked a fight with the car’s standard-fit parallel parking system because that went completely dead for the entire hour I tried to test it.
Bigger models have even more standard equipment but the toys in this car are quite impressive. The list includes, among others, drowsiness detection, climate control, cruise control, auto lights and wipers, chilly cubby hole, power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, three 12V sockets and ISOFIX mounts.
An ML350 is also shipped with leather trim, multi-function steering wheel with shift paddles for the 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, intelligent light system with adaptive high-beam (which was disappointing), daytime / LED lights, tyre pressure monitor, electric trailer coupling, electric tail gate and roof rails.
Safety is covered by Mercedes’ Pre-Safe system, ABS with brake assist, ESP with trailer function, adaptive brakes with hill-hold, plus plenty of airbags. Options include Keyless Go, air suspension, sunroof, Lane Keep Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Night View, Pre-safe Brake and an active bonnet to lessen a pedestrian impact.
There are various extra packages available including an Off-Road Package to compliment the ML’s 4Matic electronic off-road system. It can split power 50:50 front / rear and the ESP is tuned for off-road use (including downhill speed regulation) by the push of a button.
The bit of sand and mud we traversed didn’t bother the ML much, its fat rubber carried the hefty car with ease. This impression is even more pronounced on-road; an ML350 feels bulky but is surprisingly light on its feet. The electromechanical, variable power steering is rather numb but it suits the big car and reminded me of a Range Rover.
Ride and handling have similar attributes as the big Mercedes glides along gracefully or hops over uneven surfaces with weighty composure. The two-stage dampers (Comfort or Sport) make a marked difference and even stay in whichever mode you chose during your last drive.
Another pleasing aspect was the zingy 3.5L V6 engine which coasts along quietly or struts its 225kW with a delicious roar. Our fuel consumption hovered around 12L/100km, 10 or 15 are just as possible but the claimed 8.5 seem unattainable from the SA-spec 93L tank.
The ML350 costs N$752,000 without CO2 tax or options and includes a one-year/unlimited-km warranty and 6-year/120,000km maintenance plan. The thrifty ML250 BlueTEC starts the range at N$683,000 while the manic ML63 AMG ends it at N$1,380,000.
0-100m: 5.8s / 93.0km/h
0-200m: 9.0s / 118.7km/h
0-300m: 11.8s / 133.8km/h
0-400m: 14.4s / 145.2km/h
1/4mile: 14.4s @ 90.4mph (145.4km/h)
Climate Cool, sunny
Road Dry tarmac, level
Occupants Driver, no passengers
Fuel level 1/4