2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550Posted on December 12th, 2007
High-performance crossover vehicle
By Nina Russin
The M-Class is an a la carte offering that can fill lots of squares. Depending on the grade and options, it can function as a sport-utility vehicle with luxurious appointments, or a sports car with a very large cargo area. A clean diesel model makes it a green car as well.
The ML550, equipped with a 382-horsepower V8 engine, is the sports car in the M-Class family. With a zero-to-sixty time of 5.6 seconds, it makes quick work of weekly grocery shopping.
While the test car has many off-road handling features such as permanent four-wheel drive, hill start assist, and downhill descent control, an AMG sport package makes it more a car for the streets. The AMG option upgrades the standard wheels and tires to nineteen inch rims, adds special running boards and restyled front and rear bumpers. In general, I don’t like running boards on off-road cars: they have a way of attracting rocks, and ending up on the side of the trail.
But on paved roads, the ML550 combines the performance of a European luxury sedan with the cargo capability of a sport-utility vehicle. The seven-speed automatic transmission comes with a unique shift lever on the steering column that operates with the touch of a finger. Additional steering wheel mounted buttons allow the driver to change gears manually.
The electronic system uses computer controls to adjust shift points according to the driving situation. As with electronic steering and braking, there’s a certain leap of faith in abandoning the traditional mechanical systems. But if any company has the engineering finesse to make electronic systems bulletproof, it’s Mercedes-Benz.
A fully independent suspension coupled with power rack-and-pinion steering gives the car a buttery smooth ride with excellent steering response at all speeds. The test car has optional air suspension, as part of the premium III package that also includes a bunch of interior upgrades, bi-xenon curve illuminating headlamps, headlamp washers and a power liftgate ($8500).
The Airmatic suspension incorporates adaptive damping that makes real-time adjustments to the shocks depending on the driving situation. Despite its compliant ride, the M-Class stays flat in the corners, even at high speeds. I tested it on some decreasing radius cloverleafs, and the car refused to come unglued.
I still find brake-by-wire a little grabby during sudden stops. But under normal conditions, it feels about the same as a mechanical system.
There’s a backup hydraulic system that takes over if the brake-by-wire fails. For an old-fashioned duff like me, there’s security in brake fluid. Standard antilock braking, traction control and electronic stability program help the driver maintain directional control on wet or uneven road surfaces.
The bi-xenon headlamps provide a long beam of light, close in color and intensity to daylight. The turn illuminating feature makes pedestrians and cyclists crossing at intersections easier to see.
Standard rain-sensing wipers automatically adjust wiper speed, so the driver doesn’t have to switch the wipers on and off in intermittent rain.
A stalk near the turn signal engages the cruise control. I find the proximity of the two stalks disconcerting: it’s too easy to mistakenly turn on the cruise control.
A Parktronic rear backup warning system ($770) adds a camera with a wide angle lense that displays the area behind the car in the navigation screen. Not only does the system eliminate blind spots to the rear of the car, it also makes it much easier to back into a small space.
The base model comes standard with a high level of comfort and convenience features, including heated front seats, dual-zone climate control with a dust and pollen filter, four 12-volt power outlets, an eight speaker sound system with a MP3 jack, and redundant steering wheel controls. A power glass sunroof sheds ambient light into the rear of the car.
There are plenty of cupholders for both rows of passengers, and the map pockets have molded bottle holders. The 60/40 split second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor.
A leather trim package ($1975) adds upscale leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, and an ambient light package at a very upscale price. It’s pretty, but I personally wouldn’t fork out the cash for it.
Interior upgrades that come with the premium III package include the navigation system, power driver seat, passenger seat and steering column with memory, power folding mirrors, a harman/kardon sound system with satellite radio, rear seat entertainment system and cargo organizer.
The upgraded sound system will appeal to audiophiles, since it utilizes the latest in 5.1 surround sound. I’m not sure I would opt for the factory-installed navigation system. While aftermarket products can’t interface with the car’s software, they use the same global positioning satellites and work fine as electronic maps.
The power liftgate is a great feature for anyone who spends a lot of time with their hands full. The M-Class cargo area is spacious and easy to utilize. Standard roof rails are designed to hold loads up to 220 pounds.
The other day somebody had parked their first-generation M-Class next to the test car. While I don’t normally talk about styling updates, this one is significant. The first M-Class looked like a thinly-disguised minivan. The new car most definitely does not. Gone is the square rear end and uninspired grille.
The new M-Class has sports car proportions, despite its high profile. The wheels are pushed far to the corners and the profile has an aerodynamic wedge shape, that also improves its coefficient of drag. A slanted C pillar echoes the rake of the windshield, making the vehicle look more like a passenger car than a traditional two-box design. A wedge that runs along the beltline, ending in the rear wheel arch, adds to the aerodynamic character. The front end of the car is slightly lower than the rear.
The rear D pillars are thin and black to match the rear glass, so it looks like glass wraps around the back of the car. Similarly, the tail lamps have a wrap-around design, to break up the vertical lines.
The grille is taller and the windshield proportionately shorter, with large sweeping headlamps that wrap around the corners of the car. Beneath the grille is an air scoop framed by two additional lamps, giving the front of the car an all-business look.
Base price on the test car is $52,400. Option packages add almost $15,000. The test car has a MSRP of $67,800, including the $775 destination charge.
The M-Class is produced stateside at Mercedes-Benz’s Huntsville, Alabama assembly plant.
Likes: Sports car performance with the practicality of a sport-utility vehicle, the M-Class is a luxurious, fun ride.
Dislikes: The 5.5-liter V8 engine is a bit of a gas guzzler. Running boards are attractive, but can be a liability during off-road driving.
Base price: $52,400
As tested: $67,800
Horsepower: 382 Hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 391 lbs-ft @ 2800 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 5.6 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
Bicycle friendly: Yes
First aid kit: N/A
Fuel economy: 13/18 mpg city/highway
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