In every corner of the globe, in every segment in which they sell, the battle for supremacy between Mercedes-Benz and BMW is intense.
That competition is clearly evident in Australia’s luxury SUV segment where Benz’s ML team takes on the BMW X5 squad. To be frank, there isn’t a weak model in either lineup.
Car Showroom was on hand when the current generation Mercedes-Benz ML Class was spectacularly unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Now, mid-life in the product cycle (facelifted late ’08), the ML’s bold looks are still state-of-the-art.
What You Get
Mercedes-Benz handed us the keys to a mid-range ML 350 CDI with the AMG sports pack. Finished in Grey Metallic paint, with the 21-inch AMG wheels, high-gloss black and chrome grille and chrome underguards glistening in the sun, well…for on-road presence and ‘cred’ in the golf club carpark, just go straight to the ‘max’ with this German baby.
Stickered at $96,900, the AMG-enhanced ML350 is actually very competitively priced compared to the equivalent X5 and is darn good value when shopped against Range Rover Sport.
Inside is the usual ‘Benz arsenal of high tech equipment and luxury features.
ML 350 CDI is a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V6 from Mercedes’ BlueEFFICIENCY lineup. Maximum power is 165Nm at 3800 rpm and peak torque of 510Nm is delivered between 1600 rpm and 2800 rpm.
That just shades BMW’s similar engine which has figures of 160kW/500Nm.
‘Benz says the ML 350 CDI covers zero to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds, returns combined cycle fuel consumption of 9.8l/100kms and the exhaust emissions are 260g/km.
Driving all four wheels via the M-B 7G-TRONIC automatic, the ML 350 CDI certainly got the job done with handy acceleration around town and relaxed highway cruising. As this is a Mercedes-Benz, it does seem a tad over-the-top to mention that refinement levels were high.
Improved, more supportive front seats were added to the ML range at the most recent facelift. ML 350 comes standard with the ‘Luxury Pack’ which adds four-way lumbar support to the front passenger’s seat.
The driving position was excellent thanks to the multi-adjustable drivers’ seat and the new four-spoke leather steering wheel, which adjusts for rake and reach. ‘Benz uses black Artico leather which was nicely trimmed front and rear.
We loved the chrome-trimmed instruments in the drivers’ binnacle – stylish and easy to read.
A new generation telematics system was also included in the most recent changes to the ML lineup with Bluetooth and auxiliary audio functionality.
Our car was fitted with the Harman Kardon CD audio system which – as you would expect – was top-shelf, plus the COMMAND APS system with a reversing camera.
Audio, satellite navigation, climate control and camera displays were on the large center console colour screen. We must compliment ‘Benz for the straightforward operation (via dials with temperature settings) for the climate control system (others complicate it unnecessarily), but we continue to deduct points for the stalk cruise control operation (steering wheel buttons are better).
The Car Showroom juniors enjoyed surprising legroom in the excellent rear seat (the ML is technically a mid-size SUV).
Similar story with luggage capacity which was large. Our test car was fitted with the optional EASYPACK tailgate with push-button opening and closing – a great feature.
Exterior & Styling
Clearly the AMG kit does boost the ML 350 significantly. We loved the black radiator grille with chrome highlights (even the standard ML front-end is a styling masterpiece).
Also listed under ‘AMG’: 21-inch five spoke alloy wheels, side skirts, front and rear aprons and dark-tinted privacy glass rear of the B-pillar.
The front-end did get a workover as part of the latest upgrades – noticeable by the lower radiator grille and headlights with a pronounced lower ‘step’. At the rear, the bumper was restyled.
Overall, the changes gave the ML a more muscular appearance but the familiar, steeply forward-angled C-pillars remain.
Now a few years into its model life, the ML still looks the business.
On The Road
‘Precision’ is the term that always springs to mind when we have a Mercedes-Benz in the Car Showroom garage – it’s the way they look, the way they feel and the way they drive.
For another $60K or so, the V8-powered ML63 AMG is getting into the supercar league with its scintillating looks and performance, but for most, the ML 350 CDI AMG delivers the practicality of an SUV with European design, cachet and driving dynamics.
Over our mountain roads test route, we did use the steering wheel paddle shifters to give the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel a push along – but just because we could, not because it needed a crack of the whip. Aided by its grippy Continental tyres, the AMG-fettled 350 was sharp, turned-in with poise and responded nicely to quickly accelerate out of turns
The adjustable sports suspension has ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ settings. Switching from ‘Comfort’ to ‘Sport’ lowers the ride height and stiffens the dampers for a noticeably sportier dynamic.
We also liked the downhill speed assist function. Around our place, 50km/h speed limits prevail and even on steep downhill sections we just set the cruise control to 50 km/h and the ML 350 CDI automatically slowed things down via engine braking.
Around town, even though the turning circle is 11.6 metres, the ML is surprisingly maneuverable although the dark privacy glass meant care was needed when parking in tight carparks at night – the optional reversing camera helped significantly.
Like many of the current ‘Benz lineup, the ML 350 CDI uses a steering column stalk to select gears – it’s slick and easy to operate. However some of our team, unused to European cars with indicators on the left of the steering wheel, occasionally flicked the gear level into neutral instead of the indicator stalk – something that familiarity would overcome.
Very, very impressive – the AMG-kitted ML 350 CDI is certainly one of our favourite SUVs. BMW or Merc? In many ways it’s a toss of the coin, personal styling preferences and deals on offer from individual dealers.
Talking Europeans, the BMW X5 is the most direct competitor. Just like the ML, it ticks all of our boxes.
Range Rover Sport is equally competent, nicely styled and great to drive – you need to carefully check specifications and prices on offer to ensure you’re comparing different models equally.
Audi’s Q7 comes form the Volkswagen Touareg-Porsche Cayenne stable and offers seven seats as standard.
The latest Cayenne is a big improver – much more Porsche-like – but it carries a price premium.
Volkswagen’s Touareg is about to be replaced by an all-new model and while the current version is priced lower than the equivalent ML, it doesn’t have the styling cachet – inside or outside – of the ‘Benz.
M-B does everything right; AMG kit is a beauty; extensive equipment list.
Stalk cruise control and gear lever take some adjustment