ML = Much Loved
by Scott Corlett
In 1998, Mercedes rushed into the sport-ute fray with its introduction of the M-Class hauler—a boxy, quality-issue-plagued, anachronistic, body-on-frame SUV manufactured in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In 2005, the engineers in Stuttgart were redeemed when the second-generation M-Class hit dealers’ lots. Still produced in the yellowhammer state, the current ML is a stealthy unibody SUV that finally has the right stuff to compete (and, in most cases, clobber) car-based sport-utes such as BMW’s X5, Lexus’s RX, and Acura’s MDX.
After this winter’s record snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California’s rivers are running high and fast. Our 2006 Mercedes ML350 test car arrived just in time to ferry a crew of whitewater lovers from San Francisco to Coloma, a small town in the Sierra foothills. This destination was hardly more than a clutch of wood-frame buildings when, in 1848, a man named Marshall accidentally found some shiny flakes in the shallows of the American River—a discovery that sparked both the California gold rush and the Golden State’s rise to fortune. At six a.m., we felt like ‘49ers after a long night in the saloon as we groggily climbed into the ML’s expansive cabin—this M-Class is 5.9 inches longer and 2.8 inches wider than the previous generation. After a quick stop for coffee (the containers fit securely in the vastly improved, front and rear cup holders), we departed San Francisco on our eastward trek.
On the potholed freeway, at speeds high enough to raise the ire of the usually forgiving California Highway Patrol, the ML’s precise steering and newly developed four-link, coil-spring rear suspension kept the ride both tightly controlled and pleasantly firm. The rafting company said to allow 2.5 hours for the trip from the Bay Area to base camp—pushing the ML350’s 3.5-liter, 268-hp, 24-valve V-6 engine, we made the 130 mile run on a route set out by the optional, easy-to-use DVD Navigation System with 45 minutes to spare. Presently in the US, Mercedes’s product planners offer one other engine option for the M-Class, a 5.0-liter, 302-hp, 24-valve V-8 that raises the ML’s base MSRP from $39,750 to $48,500; however, watch later this year for an advanced technology diesel powerplant that the Germans promise to rollout in an effort to sate Americans’ newfound taste for fuel economy.
We backed into a parking space in the waterside lot and pushed the dainty button that puts the ML’s seven-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission into park. This column-mounted shifter, which is also found on the Benz S-Class, takes some getting used to—the lever deals with drive, neutral, and reverse; the end-of-stalk button handles park; and the rocker buttons, hidden on the dash side of the steering wheel, select individual gears. We jumped out of the ML into the 49-degree morning air, shimmied into our wetsuits (some with more ease than others), and stored our street clothes in the M-Class’s cavernous rear cargo space. We’ll skip the details of the trip down the river other than to say that shooting the rapids was rougher than a ride in a ’74 Volkswagen over a rutted dirt road and that the fresh snowmelt was cold enough to keep us wishing for a Starbucks around each bend.
After we returned (more or less in one piece) to base camp, we shed our neoprene, hopped back into the ML, and cranked the seat heaters to high. Famished from nonstop paddling at the behest of our able, if overzealous river guide, we programmed the Navi to pilot us to the nearest burger shack—we were fully prepared to test the tolerances of the ML’s permanent fulltime four-wheel drive if off-road travel would hasten this trip. After chowing down like pigs at a trough, we hit the highway back to San Francisco. Before the odometer ticked off ten miles, our precious cargo was asleep, cosseted in the quiet of the well-insulated cabin and secure in the knowledge that the ML’s standard kit of front, front-side, and front-and-rear-curtain airbags stood ready to protect in the event of mishap.
Greatly improved from its previous version, the second-generation M-Class offers high performance, tight handling, comfortable seating, and generous interior dimensions—a truly class-leading combination of attributes that makes us want to open our wallets. As we rolled over the Bay Bridge with San Francisco stretched out before us, we smiled and turned the stereo volume higher—we still had plenty time to get ready for our Saturday night on the town with the ML.
Mercedes-Benz is a gay-friendly company.