Points of note concerning the new ML. For starters, it corks the gap between the GLK and the GL in Mercedes’ line-up, and since the company has gone on record saying 2012 is its Year of the SUV, signs of things to come may well be hiding in the ML’s various nooks and crannies. Plus, this being an SUV and a Mercedes-Benz to boot, customer interest in the Middle East will be high.
A quick glance at the facelift shows Merc designers haven’t lost much sleep at the drawing board. But given the handsome look of the previous model, that’s hardly a bad thing. Like the SLK, the ML’s front grille has received an injection of brawn, the whole front end suitably more imposing as a result. The traditional Merc bling remains albeit not to gangsta rap levels, chromed grilles and a redesigned front bumper finding the balance nicely. All told the overall effect is pretty striking.
Ditto on the interior. Customary Mercedes fit and quality are front and centre, exemplified by the finely stitched leather upholstery and a well laid out instrument cluster. I fear that the sheer amount of technical wizardry at your disposal means most buttons and dials will be glanced at fleetingly rather than actually used, and in the hot seat the amount of information thrown your way by the instrument panel borders on ridiculous. The again, there are few areas where you’ll be left wanting.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the middle child of Merc’s SUV family would pay the price for offering impressive space inside, plus a reasonable boot, by looking enormous from the outside. But no – it’s remarkably compact in its appearance. This point is underlined when I’m belted up behind the wheel. Visibility is no issue and I rarely feel like I’m towering above my fellow motorists. Driving position is also very good, the seats holding the figure through corners yet still proving comfortable enough to complete long journeys with ease.
Rush hour does throw up a few issues with the technology at my disposal. The warning lights in the wing mirrors, for example, alert me to cars in my blind spots, but since they rarely switch off in heavy traffic, in themselves they become a distraction. Of similar annoyance are the various beeps alerting me to nearby objects: quite often I find myself wondering ‘what is that noise?’ rather than paying attention to the road itself.
Scythe through these modest issues though and the ML500 will play its trump cards, which were demonstrated aptly with a few laps around Dubai’s Autodrome as part of the official launch event. Depressing the accelerator with minimal alacrity will insight ceaseless rather than urgent acceleration from the V8 engine, exactly what’s expected from a big family car. Keep the right foot down and revs will keep climbing without stuttering or losing interest, no matter whereabouts you are in the gearbox.
Even in manual mode, the gearbox has a tendency to upshift if it feels the redline is approaching too quickly, which can ruin momentum somewhat. In fairness though this is only noticeable on-track, and since you’ll rarely be hustling the racing line in the real world, it shouldn’t cause much concern. On the road, gear changes are seemingly effortless, the drop in engine tone the only real clue that an upshift has been made at all. Flick down through the gears and you’ll also find some impressive engine braking.
What really surprises me is the balance. I had expected, when entering the sweeping turn one, to wash wide miserably, tyres screaming their displeasure as the driver-side door sills get alarming close to the tarmac. Once again, no. Having been light and taught while at cruising speed in the outside lane of the highway, the steering now feels energetic and the similarly impressive feel through the front wheels allows me to push on with remarkable ease. Somehow this SUV feels, well, planted. We’re not talking Nordschleife levels of performance but there’s more than enough to raise my eyebrows.
They stay raised when I’m through the first kink and begin braking for turn two. The big stoppers are impressive and responsive on both road and track. The sweet spot is easy to find, allowing me to hustle the engine and gears even more, all of which tomfoolery the ML takes in its mighty stride.
Mercedes say BMW’s X5 and the Porsche Cayenne are in their SUV cross-hairs. Tone down the electronic aids a bit, and the ML500 might just hit the bull’s eye.
Shots courtesy of Mercedes