UK CAR Reviews: Mercedes Benz ML320
2000 M Class 320 V6 24 valve
They say things go around in circles. Mercedes can claim a fair chunk of the car inventing market for themselves. Many of the features we take for granted today, such as pedal layout, come from the Daimler Mercedes stable. Its fair to say that all car drivers owe a big debt of gratitude to Mercedes of old. Its also fair to say that in term of pushing the cutting edge of car design Mercedes had been some way off that for a while. Granted they have never blindly followed fashion and produced short-lived consumer conscious throw away products and they have astutely managed to avoid many of the blind alleys various manufactures seem to turn up.
Until recently at least. Then all of a sudden they seem to have decided to change the habits of a Century with a splurge of errmmm shall we say more interesting models?
Whether in the long term Mercedes will succeed in their attempts to re-invent motorised transport with models such as the dubious Elkaphobic A-class or the Marque hiding Smart car remains to be seen. Though Mercedes attempt to establish itself in the downsize market is a praiseworthy aim.
However, quite where they and other manufactures are heading with the new breed of 4*4 is a question only the market and consumers will answer in the long term. This is a question that puzzled me before I even saw an ML in the flesh. The chance to drive one of these Beasts obviously could not be missed, with so many questions to be answered.
From the Outside it looks quite an imposing beast. Not as big as I expected, almost compact by 4*4 standards. Overhangs are short which help give it a stubby aggressive look, despite the lack of over the top fittings. Many 4*4 seem to get over glitzed by the designers in an attempt to give them a semi unique look. Thankfully Mercedes has resisted the temptation to daub on a few extra styling points, and it looks all the better for them. There is though little to suggest that this is a Mercedes, as it carries little in the way of heritage pointers unlike the saloons or sportsters.
The huge three pointed star on the grill is plenty obvious though. The Alloy wheels are restrained but classy no soon to be peeling chrome on these babies.
Getting in on a dark evening presents the first challenge the black key fob hides its buttons in the blackness of the night, and trying to insert a key into the door lock is a pointless exercise, as you just end up scratching the blanking plate. A little fumbling has the catches jump up with a hefty thud. A firm thumb press breaks the catch then a small tug, followed by a firm tug breaks the seal and swings open the very very heavy door which glides slowly open like a prop from the Addams family. If weight of the door is a measure of build quality, then this car is probably built like an ocean going liner. The hinges are hopefully some of the strongest ever fitted to a road car.
The interior has caused a bit of a argument amongst Mercedes fans, some say its quite adequate, some bemoan it lack of Mercedes saloon class fitting. Personally I find it a little over the top for a Soft Roader and a bit of a mixed bag in the apparent luxury stakes. The doors are quite plainly trimmed as are the seats, but that is okay by me. The Centre console and transmission tunnel looks in contrast rather over the top and complicated, with all major and minor controls seemingly congregated there. The dash is precise simple and surprisingly limited in its number of dials, and just like the saloons nothing to get exited about.
Plain as the seats look they are pretty comfortable, they are also remarkably wide, so if you have a huge fat behind, even bigger than mine! You should still fit in here. Being non traditional in 4*4 chassis design means interior space is good. Even the boot is a fair size for a compact 4*4.
The grey trim interior seems well put together, with wood inserts nicer than most peoples dining tables. Only a Mercedes owner could tell you whether its up to normal Merc standards or a reflection of new Daimler/Chrysler priorities.
After a little fiddle with the electric seats, The key slots in easy enough. Though later it was somewhat reticent about coming about. Either I was very dull that evening, or it has some secret Germanic technique for removal, or it was begging for even more of a thrashing.
The engine leaps into life with a mechanical roar before settling down to a silent idle. A few presses of the accelerator, has the rev counter strolling round the dial in a perfectly damped sweep confirming that the engine is actually running. After turning on the big pedestrian melting headlamps,
the complex gear knob is guided through the serpentine box into drive. The box whirrs gently whilst I look for the hand brake and then whirrs some more after a lot of whirring, my foot get caught on the foot parking brake lever, with this little clue I search for the release button on the dash, spring it off and on removal of foot from brake lever the Merc slowly, slowly edges forward.
The thick rimmed wheel is light to turn at parking speeds and fairly high geared so there is no amusing sweat inducing wheel spinning antics required to exit the parking space. As we straighten up and push the throttle for the first time in anger it settles to a solid stable state, as the car creep away at a snails pace. More much more pedal application has the big car pick up its skirts and guns towards open country slurring up the Five speed auto with little other than a light change in engine note.
Thinking about its perceived ability to go off road the long sluggish throttle makes good sense, giving you perfect rev control off road. It just needs a good old press to get it to go on the road. The gearbox is also seemingly attuned to the compromise also, needing a good deep press to provoke kick down.
Give it plenty though and you wont be disappointed, with the pedal firmly down the car leaps forward with great gusto, each gear change giving a nice little whack to remind you what is going on below. IM sure a fair few people will get a few surprises from an M class away from the lights.
This should not be a surprise really as the 3.2 litre motor is the same one found in the much more nimble sporters , what's good enough for them , is plenty enough for this.
The gearboxes convoluted route down the gears, simplifies once in forward mode. 4 straight down with 5th a nudge to the right. It might not change on a whim but at least it has the back up of the engines fat torque curve to pull it along.
Hugely solid braking bring you to a reassured pin point spot, though pads dont last as many Merc owners expect. (allegedly).
Despite the size and height the Merc feels quite nimble at slow speeds with good vision all round. Its bulk is felt as speeds increase through a set of swinging bend. But the Merc holds its line superbly for what it is. It always feels well balanced, and planted to the road as if someone had nailed it down. The steering is solid and well weighted giving real pleasure in use rather than some 4*4s aim and hope wandering efforts.
Aided by its quick steering, it feels much more MPV like than 4*4 like. Perhaps this is no shock really you look at the technical spec of the car it reads much more like a super MPV than a super 4*4.
And when you take into account the valiant attempt Mercedes has made at giving it a decent ride, it starts to feel even more like and MPV. Sure its firm, but it has good body control not rolling or lurching into corners, but keeping a nicely composed level feel. Of course uderneath there is some real trickery involved in getting Four independently sprung wheels to obey the helm without noticeable feedback from the All wheel drive gubbins.
4*4s always feel pretty safe to sit in with their high driving position, and even when the knobbly tires run wide the sheer bulk tends to make it feel safe as it happen fairly slowly at slow speed anyway. The Mercedes feels safe in a volvoesque solid kind of fashion. ABS and various traction control devices keep it on the straight and narrow. And if a car hewn from so solid a piece of billet doesn't offer decent crash protection I don't know what does. If crashing is a foremost consideration then , Bar being hit by a Articulated lorry full of inflammables, you can rest in the knowledge that you have pretty well done as much as you can to guarantee your survival.
The key fob driven entrance system at least stops a screw driver being wedged in your lock.
Mercedes has worked hard to make this 4*4 palatable to kings road clientele. It looks like a 4*4 but is as easy to drive as a normal saloon. Nice touches like electric folding mirrors help it squeeze around the Tesco/Sainsburys off road test arena, without you having to wind the (electric) windows down and stick your mitt into the freezing polluted British winter.
Roof bars are more MPV, Galvanised Meccano Roof rack just would not quite look the part would it.
There are more knobs and gadgets than you can shake a stick at, and way to many to work out at first glance. Whether this is painful ergonomics or gadget heaven only you can decide. It certainly seems well specked with non of the usual Mercedes one electric mirror, and optional £200 Ashtray malarky .
Its a shame then that I really cant see why you would need one of them. An MPV is more functional and a real 4*4 would probably eat this in real off road conditions if you really dared take it there.
Still that does not make it a bad car - just a niche one. If your off roading is less going though 6 foot rock strewn mud holes, and more towing ponies in and out of a gymkana it will be fine, its to too nice a vehicle to roll in a quarry, or have a bunch of slobbering gun dogs muck up the upholstery.
Personally I've always found Mercedes cars more Aspirational than Inspirational and sadly for me this is another one. But on the up side it is at least competivly priced when new, should be reliable to the point when Land Rover owners start to cry, will probably hold its value like no other 4*4 by far, and make perfect sense for 99% of Discovery drivers in the real world.
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