Not Perfect, But This Mercedes Has Off-Road Smarts

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Not Perfect, But This Mercedes Has Off-Road Smarts

It wasn't long ago that Land Rover/Range Rover had the mountaintop to themselves but the luxury SUV segment has grown very crowded very quickly. Buyers now have a wide choice that includes the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lexus RX300, BMW X5 and on the horizon are the Cadillac Escalade and Porsche Cayenne. Then there's the new crop of featherweight SUV alternatives like the Volvo XC wagon. Despite this tough field, Mercedes Benz has muscled its way in with the ML320 to claim a share of this growing and lucrative pie.

Already half-way into its life cycle, the ML320 is a late arrival on these shores but it's a safer choice today, because many of the bugs that plagued early vehicles have been ironed out. What's more, production at the Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant has been ramped up and the initial fever for Mercedes Benz' first SUV has cooled off, so buyers don't face months of waiting for delivery.

Styling-wise, the ML320 is at some risk of being confused for a minivan but it's a powerful and elegant design that avoids boxy lines. The interior is a study in restrained luxury. While jaded Benz owners may not be impressed, newcomers to the brand will find plenty to be excited about. Standard appointments include heated power seats, burled walnut trim and leather.

Instead of the usual hood ornament that adorns Benz passenger cars, the ML320's three-pointed star sits on the grille where it serves as a not-so-gentle reminder of the M's truck heritage: The emblem is the size of a Frisbee, the same as used on Benz trucks.

And like a truck, the M-Class rides on a ladder frame to which the body is bolted using ten rubber mounts. Its 2,820 mm wheelbase (70 mm longer than the Hyundai Terracan) endows it with greater stability and roadholding characteristics as well as one of the largest luggage compartments in its class (up to 2300 liters with rear seats fully folded).

Power delivery by way of a quiet and obedient five-speed automatic gearbox is adequate but hardly stellar with a claimed zero to 100 km/h sprint time of 9.4 sec. 272 ps@5750rpm and 31.6 kg.m of torque@3000-4800 rpm are served up by 3.2-liter SOHC V-6 which has a novel arrangement: three valves and dual spark plugs per cylinder. Brawnier V-8 power is available in the ML430 and the high performance ML55 (zero to 100 in 6.9 sec) but these are not yet offered by Han Sung Motor, the local Mercedes distributor.

Off-road, the ML is all business. Its four-wheel Electronic Traction System (4-ETS) electronically senses wheelspin, brakes the offending wheel(s) and routes full power to the tractive wheels or even to a single wheel if necessary. The driver doesn't lift a finger. In tricky spots, there's a push-button 2.64:1 low range for crawling your way out of trouble.

Also standard is ESP (Electronic Stability Program) that monitors directional stability in a curve. ESP can brake individual wheels and momentarily reduce engine power to keep you on course. Should the vehicle start to drift outward (understeer), ESP brakes the inside rear wheel and if it starts fishtailing (oversteer), it brakes the outside front wheel.

Steering, while well-weighted, is not nearly as perfect as expected. The wheel is a bit slow in returning to on-centre and requires gentle assistance to complete a turning maneuver.

What draws well-heeled buyers to Mercedes Benz is the brand cachet. High and mighty, it's practically unassailable, much like the feeling of security and solidity that's experienced when you plant yourself behind the wheel of the ML320.

"You pay $30,000 for the car and another $30,000 for the three-pointed star emblem," Chung Se-Yung, the retired Hyundai Motor chairman, once quipped. Perhaps unfair, but the other criticism leveled against M-B is that their products are "over-engineered." The relentless pursuit of perfection and the use of premium materials partly explain the sky-high sticker price.

Unquestionably, this is one of the finest specimens of an SUV, and it's backed by the Mercedes' legendary reliability and durability. The more important question is whether the ML320 provides the best value for the money. On that point, you could quibble ad infinitum. Price as tested: 79.9 million won ($66,583).

by Oles Gadacz

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