October 20, 2008
Oshawa, Ontario – There’s a beautiful photo in one of Mercedes-Benz’s SUV brochures. It shows the vehicle splashing across a rocky riverbed, water flying, about to go up and over some stones that are almost up to the bumper.
Now, perhaps there are some wealthy buyers who would, indeed, use a vehicle like my 2008 ML550 tester to get to a retreat so secluded that you must drive through a river to get to it. The reality is that the vast majority are city warriors, where my tester’s optional air suspension and off-road program are just extra buttons on the dash. Within that environment, though, this is a very luxurious way to get from A to B, whether it’s through the boreal forest or the urban jungle.
The ML550 is new in the M-Class line-up for 2008; with its 5.5-litre V8 engine, it replaces the previous ML500, which used a 5.0-litre V8. It takes its place alongside the diesel-powered ML320 CDI, the V6-powered ML350, and the ML63 AMG, which uses a 6.2-litre V8. Like the others, the ML550 uses a seven-speed automatic transmission, and comes only with the company’s 4Matic all-wheel drive. It’s a permanent system that uses a single-speed transfer case and splits the torque 50/50.
The 5.5-litre makes 382 horsepower, and its peak 391 lb-ft of torque comes at just 2,800 rpm, but bring cash to the pumps: against the published figures of 16.0 L/100 km in the city and 11.3 on the highway, I averaged 13.0, with much of my driving for the week on the highway. That’s premium fuel, too.
The engine is powerful enough for any type of driving, but I found a slight lag on throttle response; if you try to accelerate slowly, it’s tough to modulate it. This is a vehicle that just wants to go. Handling is quick, but you never forget that this is a tall, 2,215-kg vehicle. There’s a button that switches from “Sport” to “Normal” to “Comfort”, and while I didn’t notice much difference from Normal to Comfort, the Sport setting stiffens everything up considerably. The air suspension controls look after the height and suspension tuning; when raised, the system lifts the vehicle by 80 mm, then lowers it to regular ride height on the highway and, at high speeds, brings it down by 15 mm. The “off-road” button adjusts the engine power, shifts, electronic stability control, brakes and four-wheel drive for “terrain and crossing water,” according to the owner’s manual. Its lack of a two-speed transfer case limits just how rough that terrain can actually be, but at this level, it’s really a moot point; if you’re going rock-crawling, you’re up to a G-Class, or you’re firmly entrenched in your Jeep.
The M-Class is a sibling to the GL-Class, and from the driver’s seat it all looks similar; the difference is in the back, where the M-Class has only two rows of seats to the GL’s three. Should you not need the extra chairs, the M-Class not only provides a cheaper buy-in, but its shorter length makes it easier to park in crowded downtown areas.
My tester’s Premium Package included multi-contour front seats, which have movable seat cushions and inflatable air cushions in the backrest, and they make for a staggering number of possible positions. The problem with that, at least for me, was that it didn’t take much of a move in any direction – whether the cushions or the lumbar support – to throw my ideal position out of whack, and so I was very grateful for the memory setting. The package also heats the second-row seats as well. The “Artico” faux leather on the ML320 and ML350 is replaced with real cow on the ML550.
I have mixed emotions about the dash. Everything fits with surgical precision, and it’s all soft-touch or textured, but it’s such a wide expanse of plain grey plastic that it really doesn’t look like a vehicle that tops $81,000. The centre stack and console have wood trim, but it’s not enough to break up the barren piece above it.
There are a lot of small buttons, which is standard for Mercedes, but once the automatic climate control is selected, temperature is determined by dials that spin and indicate the setting by a tiny bright light. Rear-seat passengers get a matching one in the back of the centre console, so they can adjust to their preference. All vents can be closed completely with backlit dials, which is very nice; too often, the middle ones can’t be shut off.
The instrument cluster also contains the standard white-number dials, simple and easy to read, with the vehicle information centre between them. The column-mounted electronic gearshift requires a tap up or down to move from Reverse to Drive, with a button on the end of the stalk for Park.
I like that while the optional navigation system flashes the standard reminder to watch the road, it then goes straight to the program after a few seconds, without me having to hit “okay” to tell it that yes, for the hundredth time, I’ve read the warning. The system is fairly intuitive, although the joystick isn’t as easy to operate as a touch-screen, especially when you’re trying to spell out a street name; if you don’t press the middle of the button exactly, which can be tough to do, it’ll send the keyboard over to the next letter, instead of selecting it.
There are some other neat features, such as the cruise control, which has a two-step system: tap the switch once and it accelerates or decelerates by one kilometre, but push it harder, and it goes up or down by 10 km. The Parktronic system, standard on the ML550, uses the standard warning chime but also has lights on the dash and in the headliner, visible in the rearview mirror, which warn if you’re getting too close to an object. And while the power liftgate has a button to close it, there’s a second button that not only closes it, but then locks all the doors once it’s done.
The cargo area is 103 cm long when the rear seats are in place. The cushions tumble forward and then the seatbacks fold down, lengthening the space to 168 cm. The cushions can also be removed from their tracks entirely, if you need to place objects right up to the front seats. An available cargo management system includes rear cargo rails and moveable tie-downs.
Beautifully built, the ML550 reminds me of a weightlifter: you don’t have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Universe days in order to be able to bench-press 400 pounds. Likewise, considering how most will be used, the capability seems overkill; I think the majority of buyers will probably hit this Benz’s “off-road” button once, just to see what it does, and never have need of it again. But even if you never go splashing down a rocky riverbed in it, it’s a very comfortable way to carve a path through the downtown core.
Pricing: 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550
$6,575 (Premium Package of COMAND APS with navigation, Airmatic air suspension, adaptive damping system, multi-contour front seats, heated rear seats and rearview camera $4,500; Keyless Go $1,400; trailer hitch $675)
|Price as tested:||
Manufacturer’s web site