Yesterday, we found out what ze Germans thought about ze 2009 Mercedes ML320 BlueTEC. Today, we discover what a real American thinks about the diesel SUV.
Exterior Design: ****
Compared to the boring first generation ML, the new one is a dramatic step forward. Compared to the rest of the midsize SUV market it's still rather exciting, embracing a flowing profile enhanced with some neat details. The three-bar grille is cleverly indented and, with a satin finish, nicely offsets the rest of the vehicle. Whereas most SUVs finish with a large, flat window bordered by a E-pillar, Mercedes has eschewed past standards in favor of a rearward-slanting C-pillar, giving the appearance of a rear window wrapping around the greenhouse.
Interior Design: **
This SUV has a well-designed and comfortable cockpit, but there's some strange materials and supremely stupid ornaments. The seats are well-sized and feel snug yet unrestrictive, but are unfortunately covered in MB Tex, a nasty fake leather. The column-mounted shifter isn't intuitively designed, but it opens up the center console and leaves an excellent amount of space. The LCD screens behind the front seats are large, clunky and protrude so far it causes claustrophobia. It's almost tacky. On the other hand, the interior lighting is wonderful and casts a warm light over the attractive wood touches. Then there's the size; it's big on the outside and tiny on the inside.
Put foot to floor and the turbodiesel throws its torque behind the heavy package. It's not overwhelming but there's a great feeling with all of the torque available low in the range, revealing nice grunt at around 2,000 RPM. Unfortunately, any acceleration other than from a dead stop will cause much displeasure from the 7-speed transmission while it tries to figure out what gear to choose. This is the fault of programming on the intake side, which we'll get to later. Great torque, bad management.
The ML's 13-inch brakes provide the sort of smooth and gentle glide you'd expect. Given the vehicle's heft I'd prefer a stronger and firmer feel but, honestly, the types of drivers who choose an ML are the same who slam on the brakes at the slightest hint of trouble so maybe they're doing us all a favor.
This is one smooth-riding car in the true tradition of Mercedes. Even across the worst streets Texas could throw at a vehicle, the ML320 swallows the bumps and uneven surfaces. There's a "sport" and "comfort" mode for a choice in driving styles but, even in "sport" mode it's glass smooth. The big knock against it is, from the enthusiasts perspective, it leads to dull handling. But this isn't an enthusiast's car.
What has always impressed me about most Benzes is the ability to produce a ride so steady you could keep an uncooked egg on the dash coupled with handling, though not BMW-level in its exhilaration, that's extremely competent. Unfortunately, this didn't translate well to the latest ML. Unlike most SUVs there isn't an excess of body roll, but there's no steering feel. Not only is it numb, it's downright difficult to operate. My old diesel Mercedes sedan had a Wheel-of-Fortune-sized steering wheel and, sadly, this is what was carried over to the latest generation of diesels. At least the older one had a quick steering ratio, allowing predictable turns. Not so much with the ML
It's hard to judge the 7-speed transmission, which does an admirable job of keeping the mileage high and revs low in seventh, without judging the mechanics behind it. Specifically, we're displeased with the intake and injection programming, which doesn't react to the position of the throttle but rather reads a difference. So, if you're already on the gas and move from 30% of throttle to 50% it doesn't read it as going to half-throttle, it reads as "go faster" and thus doesn't make a big change. In practice, acceleration feels strangely disproportional to throttle input. Even with this fixed, and the rather quick shifts, we're not sure if seven isn't overkill.
The Harmon Kardon LOGIC7 surround sound system has a stupid name but sounds great. When you buy a premium auto you expect premium sound and the crisp speakers coupled with the powerful subwoofer do the trick. The iPod integration is perfect, allowing easy selection of songs and the additional option of a straight audio-in port is much appreciated for those still not rocking iPods. If we have one complaint about the system, it's with the steering wheel controls, which are far from straight-forward.
Heated steering wheel? Really? Perhaps the Texan in me couldn't appreciate the additional heating package, but if I go back in my head to when I lived in Illinois I'd probably have also felt it ridiculous. As for the real toys, the Mercedes COMMAND system is at least as frustrating as iDrive. The maps for the GPS system are well-designed but the buttons are a generation behind even cheap domestic systems. I've already complained about the LCD screens in the back, but their use and function are also unnecessarily complex. As with the powertrain, it's good stuff poorly managed.
At the base price of $48,600 the ML320 BlueTEC is, in comparison to the $47,100 gas-powered ML350, a good value, providing more power and improved economy at only a slight premium. On the other hand, the addition of the rear-seat entertainment system, the heating package and the audio package jacked the price up to nearly $60K, which is an awful value, especially considering that this is essentially a glorified minivan with fewer seats.
Considering our love of diesels and our dislike of marshmellowy SUVs I feel conflicted with the ML. There are a lot of aspects the target buyer will like and, actually, it's one of the most attractive four-door Benzes. Unfortunately, for everything I liked about the ML320 there was something that made me either bored or seriously displeased.
The ML gives SUV drivers a luxurious package with semi-impressive mileage that averaged north of 23 MPG over 450 miles and 75% highway driving. Not bad, but not earth shattering either, especially given the current cost differential between gas and diesel. The driver seeking true performance will find the turbo diesel boring and the buyer looking for supreme luxury will, in the end, be disappointed by the material choices and lack of space.
• 2009 Mercedes ML320, Part One