The minute I knew I'd be reviewing the diesel-powered Mercedes ML320 BlueTec crossover I drove with my grandparents to Austin to spend some time with my grandmother's German friends Annalie and Boris. True to his heritage, Boris still owns a diesel Mercedes sedan and I wanted to see if this new, ‘Merican-made Merc could live up to his expectations.
While loading my grandparents into the ML, setting out for Austin, I was reminded senior citizens pack well. There was a box of tissue, though no one had a cold. There were a dozen magazines, though the trip was only a couple of hours. There were extra pairs of shoes packed, though we only planned to stay overnight. There was even a bottle of vodka, though I did think they'd find a use for that. Conveniently, there was plenty of room in the "truck" for all this gear.
As we start the journey my grandparents marvel at the incongruous mix of luxuries and near-luxuries the ML320 affords. The material is faux-leather MB-Tex, which is short for soft but disappointing. The LCD screens embedded in the front seats are large and impressive, but they just stick out so far I'm afraid I'm going to put my dear grandmother's head through one of them if I hit the brakes too hard. They love the backup camera even though it's the least helpful one I've ever used. The sound system is pretty good, at least good enough to get my grandmother, who can't hear very well to be able to pick out a Jay-Z/Pavement mix as "Hip Hop."
On the road the vehicle continues to impress the passengers, though I'm less than moved. It handles well for its size and is undeniably smooth sailing, almost to the point of lulling the driver to sleep. The turbo diesel V6 is torquey, providing überthrust at low RPM. Unfortunately, the 7-Speed "driver adaptive" transmission is more interested in squeezing out the last drop of pee-scented diesel than "adapting" to my driving style of screaming onto the Interstate.
Climbing into a hillier, more affluent part of Austin we blend in well. Here this is the "small" Mercedes-Benz, impressing no one with its near-$60K price. The nav did a good job of getting us to our destination, but Gigi complained it wasn't the "more scenic" route we often take. There's no button to select a grandma-approved route.
Taking advantage of some time spent "resting their eyes" I sneak off to visit some old, but much younger friends. These would be the same people who remember my previous Mercedes diesel, a 1982 300D with five-cylinders of un-turbocharged molasses short on speed but brimming with character. To them, this Benzie is a bit more impressive (and equals the annual wage of any two of my friends combined). Even better than the price, I show off the adjustable suspension and raise the ML320's height to a point where I can roll over the parking barriers with ease. A feature that likely gets used more frequently at Neiman Marcus than in the woods.
When I get back to Annalie's house the vokda is gone.
Somehow, the whole group was up by 7:30 AM and ready for me to drive them for a Tex-Mex breakfast. This was my chance to grill Boris. As you might expect, Boris lives up to the stereotype and owns a late ‘90s E300 turbo diesel. He admits this current iteration, with its bells-and-whistles, is quicker and probably better. Unfortunately for me, he doesn't seem interested in a trade. He loves his sedan. He loves the look. He loves the mileage. This white SUV is nice, but it's clearly more of an American status symbol thing than what either of us thinks of as a true touring Mercedes.
This isn't to say a Mercedes can't be an SUV, it's just to say this particular Mercedes has had all of what we love about Benzs engineered out of it. Boris' car is unapologetic about its German-ness. Merely stepping into an older Mercedes, the heft of the door as it locks into place, sends a message. Driving one, even my older 300D with its relatively sluggish performance and putt-putting engine, transmits to the driver a sense of strength that has nothing to do with airbags or anti-rollover protection and everything to do with a well-built machine equally capable of driving the Autobahn as it is crashing through a bank wall. It's like driving a luxurious tank. The ML320, sadly, masks this connection behind a layer of marshmallow creme.
The trip back is comfortable. No one is hungover. I ignore the nav system and take the pretty way home even though I'm hours late thanks to the slow way in which older generations eat breakfast. I put on a newer comedy album hoping the comic's mellow style lands with my grandparents. It doesn't. Then I put on a Woody Allen comedy album from the 1960s. Huge hit.
What's old isn't necessarily bad but, in looking back on three generations of diesel Mercedes, what's new isn't necessarily better. It's just newer.