By Roger Boylan
“This is the perfect car!” I yelled. “It is very nice,” said my wife, who is generally more restrained about such things. And of course I was yelling through my hat; we all know there’s no such thing as perfection, in a car or anything else. But my enthusiasm wasn’t totally unjustified. There we were, cruising along crowded I-35 at a steady 70 in a two-ton diesel truck that was delivering 25+ m.p.g. and taking the curves almost as nimbly as a performance car, but was also capable of carrying five people, their luggage, and groceries in comfort and style, while keeping them entertained with a selection of Sirius XM satellite radio stations, 6-CD changer, and MP3/iPod/Bluetooth hookups. All for a negotiable sticker price of between $46 and $49K, depending on options. I was sold, or would have been, with a fatter (or fat) bank account.
The catalyst of my enthusiasm was the 2009 Mercedes-Benz ML320 BlueTec. As can be seen in the photos, my test vehicle was stark kitchen-appliance white in hue; not my favorite color, although a prime choice for sunny Texas, where I live. But this vehicle is good-looking enough to not suffer from any color choice. The ’08 redesign enhanced the aesthetic presence of the ML-Class, which is now, in my humble opinion, an outstandingly attractive vehicle, distinctive amid the lumpy sameness of most SUVs. The swooping belt line, downward-sloping cut lines, and faux wheel arches create a trompe-l’oeil effect that artfully disguises the truck’s true size. The ML’s overall appearance, at both ends, is elegant, compact, and dynamic: rearward, things are neatly rounded off by a polished skid plate and purposeful twin chromed exhaust tips, and at the front by wide projector-beam headlights and a toothy grille, the latter sporting a huge Benz tri-star badge, honored symbol of the company’s hundred-plus-year heritage.
Actually, make that seventy-plus years in this case, because the first passenger Mercedes diesel debuted in 1936, and the company has been known for its wizardry in the diesel arts ever since (see a brief history of same in my review of the E320 BlueTec). The current crop of diesel Benzes, the E320 BlueTec, ML320 BlueTec, R320 BlueTec, and GL320 BlueTec, are now 50-state legal, and represent the apogee of diesel engineering. M-B’s new AdBlue system–the “Blue” in “BlueTec”–is a water-based solution of urea (yes, you read that right) that, once injected into the exhaust system, releases ammonia and thereby converts the bad nitrogen oxide emissions (a.k.a. smog) into harmless good nitrogen and water, enabling all of us, not just Californians, to breathe more freely. This appetizing cocktail is stored under the cargo floor in a seven-gallon tank that takes the place of the spare tire, which has been replaced by an air pump and inner tube filling gizmo. (Jury’s still out on that idea.) The AdBlue tank needs refilling every 10,000 miles, but not by you, thank goodness; your friendly local Benz technician is well apprised of his employer’s newest Germanic eccentricity.
Eccentric or not, it seems to work admirably. I love the pull and the power of the new Mercedes diesels. These modern oil-burners exude strength and solidity (reminding us how, in technological terms, the Germans could have pulled it off back in the big one, absent certain loonies at the helm), but at speed they’re quiet, and they put out phenomenal amounts of torque: nearly 400 lb-ft in the case of the ML320 BlueTec, sufficient to embarrass many a Mustang or snortin’ Dodge Ram at the traffic lights. Not that I would ever indulge in such juvenile behavior, of course. Still, 0-60 in around 7.5 seconds comes in handy when an 18-wheeler’s bearing down on you and you’re trying to merge onto the freeway behind the holder of the World Slowness Record. Only then does the diesel sound remotely like its clattering ancestors, but only briefly, and good heavens, when it does, do you ever move. Then, once you’re cruising, all you hear is the wind. This muscle is also good for dragging things behind, by the way; according to M-B, you can tow 7200 lbs., putting the ML-Class in the same league as the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition, although on general principles of drivability I wouldn’t like to tow anything, because the ML-Class is just about the most fun-to-drive SUV (or crossover) I’ve ever driven–yes, fun. It takes corners with ease, and it maneuvers with aplomb; there’s more than a hint of the Nürburgring in this vehicle’s engineering, and it rides almost as well as its sedan cousins, despite its height and full-time four-wheel drive.
All this forward motion is ably assisted by the seamless 7-speed (plus overdrive) transmission, which is a bit of an oddity, by the way: not only because it has 7 speeds, but because at first it’s quite invisible to the novice driver. There’s no shift lever of any kind on the console, and nothing resembling the four- or five-on-the-tree shifter familiar to drivers of pickups and Crown Victorias. It’s only when you hunt through the small grove of stalks sprouting from the steering column that control everything from the windshield wipers to the cruise control (a Mercedes quirk I remember from Benzes past) do you find anything marked with the requisite PRND settings. It feels awkward at first, but its ease of use soon grows on you. Flip it up, you’re in reverse; down, you’re in Drive; press a button and you’re in Park. Not exactly romantic, but exceedingly practical. However, should such practicality become boring, M-B has thoughtfully provided an alternative in the form of manual shifter paddles on the steering wheel, marked + for upshift and – for down; they work well enough, but such Formula-1 ambitions struck me as superfluous, considering that the boys and girls from Stuttgart (and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where MLs are actually assembled) had already worked all the ideal shift points into their magical 7-speed slushbox.
Depending on which suspension setting you choose, Comfort or Sport, the ride is soft and quiet or slightly jittery and fine-tuned. I plumped for Comfort mode, being the sort of wretched hedonist who likes his comfort zones. I also appreciate sybaritic touches like the one-touch open-and-close tailgate, the driver’s-seat power lumbar adjustments, the tasteful interior chocolate-on-taupe color scheme, the supple leather, the rich wood accents, and the instant responsiveness of the automatic HVAC system. (But not the aftermarket-accessory look of the DVD screen monitors, which were perched awkwardly atop the front seat backs rather than being incorporated into the headrests. Memo to HQ: Rethink that one, meine Damen und Herren.
Then there’s the COMAND navigation system. It annoys me because a) it’s a screen in the middle of the dashboard and b) it’s a spelling mistake. Still, it’s fairly easy to figure out, with the assistance of the hefty driver’s manual, and can be useful, if you’re stranded in Appalachia or Antarctica. However, from the same screen spill forth the myriad distractions of satellite radio, CDs, weather reports, winking logos, etc.; I’ve often dilated on the subject of these screens and their inevitable tendency to distract the driver. Suffice it to say that the ML’s is great, as these things go (and I wish they would).
All in all, however, the ML’s interior is a fine place to spend time. It’s airy, and well laid-out, and solidly built. The excellent rear seats fold down in various configurations, providing a long, flat cargo area; overall, there’s more room than you might expect, from the deceptively compact external dimensions of the vehicle.
With a 24-mpg EPA highway fuel economy rating (an underestimate of between 1 and 3 mpg, by my calculations) and a 25-gallon fuel tank, the ML320 BlueTec offers a driving range of 600 miles, easily taking care of two weeks of the average commute without a visit to the pump: an advantage, even with diesel going for slightly more than gasoline in most parts of the country. That, and the inherent durability of compression-ignition engines, not to mention the beast’s good looks and all that heritage, would justify in my mind the choice of the ML320 BlueTec over its gasoline-powered sibling, the ML350, as well as over many rivals such as the BMW M5, Acura MDX, etc. Now that Mercedes seems to be back on the reliability track from which it never should have been derailed (blame the Chrysler debacle, say the old-timers), resale values should remain high. But I’d need a very compelling reason to contemplate selling this beauty, were I to buy one. Grace, space, and pace is the traditional motto of Jaguar cars, with good reason; but throw in fuel economy ace, and you’ve got a bad rhyme and the ML320 BlueTec.
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