How does the American made Mercedes-Benz SUV stack up as a family car?
The Mercedes-Benz ML remains the second-best selling large luxury SUV of its kind behind the BMW X5.
Its somewhat aggressive exterior styling mixed with a practical and family-friendly interior make it one of several ideal German-branded choices for those with kids and a $100,000 budget.
So, it was with that thought in mind I jumped behind the wheel of this black ML 350 diesel for a drive from Sydney to Brisbane. With less than 800 kilometres on the odometer, it was important to put some k's on the clock and also get to know the car's behaviour on long-distance cruises.
Packed with a selection of delicate items for a move back to Brisbane, I left Sydney’s busy traffic behind to settle in for a comfy commute to Warwick, about an hour and half from the Queensland capital.
The ML started with a near full tank and set about using around 9.2 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway with the engine having barely been worn in. With a 93L tank, a 1000km range should be no hassle, considering the claimed fuel usage is 7.3L/100km.
First impressions of the ML 350? Comfortable. The ride is superb and it floats over nearly any surface despite the 21-inch wheels (265/45R21 front and rear). The compromise is dynamic handling (or specifically, the lack thereof), which is where the ML’s American origins are most obvious.
This is not so much a sporty SUV as it is a comfortable family-oriented high-riding wagon and that, for us at least, is perfectly fine.
Though I am in no way suggesting it is slow. With a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine delivering 190kW of power and an enormous 620Nm of torque, the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 isn’t slack in pulling its weight around. It can tow 3500kg on top of its own 2175kg kerb weight. Claimed acceleration from 0-100km/h (not with the 3500kg attached!) is achieved in a very respectable 7.4 seconds.
The seven-speed automatic transmission might be missing a gear compared to some of its rivals, but it does an excellent job of seamlessly shifting between ratios. On occasion when a sudden request for power comes in, it feels as though it can take a second or so before it will find itself in the right gear, but that initial power hesitation is exaggerated by the turbo spooling up as well.
Having given up our much loved Peugeot 2008 long term test vehicle, our choice of the ML was a reflection of our family size being set to expand by one, and our three-year old boy now more keen to carry his scooter or other large items in the trunk for family outings.
The ML’s size then, is perfect. With a boot capacity of 690L, we can fit all the week’s shopping as well as the little one's scooter, pram and other random and completely useless items that he insists we carry.
It also proved handy for trips to Ikea, considering the rear seats fold flat for a massive 2010L capacity that allowed us to carry not only furniture but also awkwardly shaped items such a large ladder.
Parking might seem like a challenge, considering the ML measures a hefty 4804mm by 2141mm in size, making its road presence somewhat intimidating for nervous parkers.
Nonetheless, with enough sensors to make an Airbus A380 proud, added to the ML 350’s rear and front camera as well as its round-view bird’s eye camera and it makes getting in and out of tight spots a non-event. It can also park itself of course, but we are yet to give that a go. In fact, I would go so far as to say the ML 350 is easier to park for the average driver, thanks to all its aides, than cars much smaller in size that rely solely on driver skill.
Speaking of the average driver, my wife loves almost everything about the ML, except the infotainment system, which she says is extremely frustrating to use. Of course, I gracefully disagree and generally point out that the error is between the screen and the seat, but who wants to argue with a pregnant lady?
The reality, though, is that the ML gets a rather outdated version of Mercedes-Benz Comand system, which is significantly improved in the new 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
So much so that comparing the busy button-infested centre console of the ML with the clean and crisp look of the C-Class is somewhat saddening for ML buyers. No doubt the next update to the large SUV will see it follow the same path as its smaller sibling with a more simplified human-machine interface.
One of the features that my wife and I have - and continue to debate - is the Distronic Plus active safety features which help keep the ML 350 in check in the event of inattentive driving.
With lane departure warning as well as lane keep assist, the ML will vibrate the steering wheel and then pull the car back into your lane if it believes it needs to. This initially scared the missus as in one instance she deliberately went out of her lane to avoid a truck that was coming a little bit too close, but the ML decided to pull her her back in towards the truck believing she was leaving her lane unintentionally.
Of course, once you understand how the system works, you’re no longer surprised by it and in the event such as above, you simply either indicate in the direction of travel, or hold the wheel a little tighter and it will over-rule the computer. The benefits certainly outweigh the risks, if you ask me.
Plus, the active cruise control (which can follow the speed of the car in front) mixed in with lane departure assist basically drives the car on the highway, a feature that was most useful when driving from Sydney to Brisbane.
Though the one bit that does get me almost every time on the drive to our new house is the active collision warning, that tries to help me avoid an imminent accident.
On our street we have a few speed-reducing S shaped traps that force you to slow down, which is perfectly fine, except the caution sign that sits right in the middle of the road more often than not makes the ML’s computer believe I am about to have a head-on with a stationary object and then goes into panic mode.
Again, it’s more due to the fact that it’s not often you drive straight towards a sign and change direction with a few metres to go, so I’d rather have it there for when it counts rather than turn it off to avoid its slightly anxious behaviour. But the system is certainly not perfect.
Just by sheer coincidence I happened to have a new BMW X5 the first week the ML 350 arrived and though the two SUVs were not exact matches (the BMW using a smaller diesel engine), it was interesting driving them side by side.
The ML is definitely a shadow of the X5 when it comes to driving dynamics, with the BMW’s cornering and handling capabilities more car-like than even some lesser sports cars. But, the ride quality on the BMW (without adaptive suspension) was so incredibly stiff that our little one couldn’t fall asleep in the back seat on long drives.
On that front, then, we are pretty happy with the Mercedes-Benz ML 350.
This month we are settling into our new house and will be using it constantly for moving large items and daily commutes.
Check back next month for update number two.
Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Long Term Report One:
- Price (w/o options): $101,430
- Date acquired: July 2014
- Odometer reading: 790km
- Travel this month: 1900km
- Consumption this month: 9.4L/100km
- Designo Edition Package $13,000
- Option Panoramic Glass Electric Sunroof $1,200
Mercedes-Benz ML 350 BlueTec with DS1 "designo edition" package includes:
- 21-inch 5 twin-Spoke alloy wheels (07R)
- AIRMATIC Package (489/214)
- Dark Tinted Privacy Glass (840)
- designo Leather single-tone upholstery (X00)
- Glass electric sunroof with tilt/slide function (414)
- Harman Kardon® Logic 7® Surround Sound System (810)
- EASY-PACK tailgate with electrically operated opening and closing functions (890)
- KEYLESS-GO with access and drive authorisation system including door handles with
- chrome inserts (889)
- Metallic paintwork (197, 755, 799 only)
- Radio Tuner - Digital DAB+ (537)
- Wood/leather steering wheel (289)