Over the past few years, Mercedes-Benz has been slowly but surely evolving, changing the look of its vehicle lineup from somber and stately, to a noticeably edgier, more modern yet still dignified presence.
The all-new Mercedes Benz ML350 CDI, internally code-named W166 for all you Merc anoraks, looks a wee bit more aggressive—certainly something a well-heeled 30-something won’t mind driving and not be concerned about whether he or she borrowed it from mom and dad.
It looks more youthful, thanks to some aggressive design cues. A more aggressive grill mated to an equally aggressive front fascia, a noticeably lower ride-height of almost 3 inches which goes to show where its target market intends to drive it, that is up high street rather than making their own, and a 1-inch lower roof combine to make it more athletic.
On the other hand, the wheelbase stays the same at 114.8 inches, while width grows by 1.5 inches, and overall length, that is the overhangs front and bump have increased, mostly for crash impact regulations, tallying up to a total of 189.1 inches, 1-inch more than the previous W164 2nd generation ML. But it is the lower roof, added to the wider track that creates an optical illusion that the new ML has grown significantly. However, illusion or not, I had no problems fitting the ML350 CDI in my townhouse’s modest 2-car carport which was made more for subcompacts than leviathan SUV’s, with my wife’s own car parked right beside with enough space to get in and out of both cars.
Power is provided by Mercedes-Benz’s 3.0 V6 diesel engine (confusing since it is, after all, called a 350, which denotes the engine displacement) mated with common-rail direct injection technology and a variable geometry turbocharger producing 224 ps and a shade over 500 Newton-Meters of torque, significantly more powerful than its predecessor. Mated to the powertrain is Mercedes’ 7G-Tronic 7-speed automatic transmission and 4-MATIC 4-wheel drive system endowing it with a towing capacity of roughly 7,000 pounds with the right towing package from the factory.
If you feel like taking the sporty bit of AMG goodness to the hilt when driving, you can change gears via buttons mounted on the four-spoke steering wheel, along with changing the audio settings on the multimedia system and cruise control functions. It also has AIRMATIC air suspension which alters damping stiffness between comfort and sport, and adjusts the ride height depending on your terrain, from highway speeds (lowest setting), to towing, to off-road crawl and normal city driving.
It wouldn’t be a proper Merc if it wasn’t an orgy of technology, hence the ML comes standard with ABS equipped large disc and multi-piston stoppers enhanced further with Brake Assist, ESP stability control with 4ETS electronic traction control system, and for adventurous types with more money than skill, a Downhill Speed Regulation or DSR which keeps speeds at a minimum crawl automatically when viewing one’s hacienda from your mountain range. When things get hot and heavy, a multi-zone THERMOTRONIC automatic climate control keeps everyone relaxed and easy. It also comes with dual front airbags, side airbags for the front passengers and curtain airbags spanning the a-through c-pillars.
It also comes with Mercedes’ PRE-SAFE technology, which raises the windows, then lowers them immediately following an accident, tightens the seatbelts and raises the seat backs if reclined in an optimal (for a crash) position to ensure less severe injuries to occupants alike, working in tandem with Mercedes’ patented NECK-PRO head restraint system. PARKTRONIC sonar parking assist as well as a rear-view camera help you settle the ML350’s wide arse in tight spots easily.
All Philippine-market ML350s get the AMG package, which consists of an AMG designed bodykit that adds more subtle visual aggression and equally mad 21-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels with highway-terrain rubber.
The big question is, how is it to drive? In a rather contrasting and amusing manner, the subtly aggressive bodied ML drives very effortlessly easy and relaxed. Boot the throttle and power, particularly torque suddenly spikes up like a debutante who suddenly picks up her skirt and sprints down the oval with proper running shoes, it’s an equally amusing and overwhelming sensation as the ML350’s 5000-lb curb weight seems cast aside. The brakes are strong but modulation is quite difficult as the middle pedal requires an unusually large amount of effort that isn’t very linear and progressive; you won’t be bullying and tail-gating smaller cars without serious risk of rear-ending them. The speed-sensitive steering, despite weighing up as speeds pile up (very easily I might add), doesn’t deliver much feel and feedback. At high speeds and over long distances, the ML350 really shines as you arrive at your destination feeling refreshed and relaxed.
In the same vein, driving through Christmas’ “Holiday Rush” traffic is equally stress-free, although the 6.5-7 km/liter fuel consumption might be worrisome considering other rival premium diesel SUVs can regularly top 8 km/liter. In hindsight though it was mad traffic during Christmas so we’ll hold out on the fuel consumption verdict.
The interior packs a punch with an impressive surround sound system that allows Bluetooth Telephony and wireless music streaming from your mobile device and a CD-tuner that plays MP3 and WMA files. It might not have the fancy speakers from the SLS but the ML350 CDI makes for a better concert hall thanks to far better NVH insulation from engine, tire and wind noise. All surfaces are covered in leather, with automatic dimming LED interior mood lights to match, and the steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. There’s not much in the way of heavily bolstered supports but the ML doesn’t hide the fact that it prefers smooth high-speed driving rather than manic sawing behind the wheel. The rear seats split and fold 60:40 allowing you to carry your expensive bicycles without the tacky look of an external bike rack, or an extra set of wheels, tires and tools should you decide to use your ML to haul your track car to and from the track, or as a make-shift love-shack after you’ve wowed your date by showing her your hacienda.
Quality, looks useability and versatility have been improved, and power and torque have been upped with the new ML350 CDI. It might not be avant-garde stylish like Audi’s Q7, as sporty as Porsche’s Cayenne, as dramatic as a Range Rover, as focused as a BMW X5 or as imposing as a Lexus LX570, but the ML appeals to a wider, broader audience. A safe approach, but one that has been proven to work time and time again especially in our market. You won’t mind borrowing it from your folks, too.