There are times that I wish premium carmakers would be less strict with the N portion of NVH. Sound, it seems, has the ability to alter emotion and shift your perception of a vehicle. I found myself again in one of those times, behind the wheel of the just-released third generation W166 Mercedes-Benz M-Class ML 350 4MATIC BlueEFFICIENCY.
No, obviously the noise is not coming from the wind – who likes the sound of buffeting air anyway? This noise originates under the bonnet and in front of the firewall. Although muted and soft, the growl is unmistakable and inspires primal instincts.
A 3,498 cubic centimetre furnace orchestrates the bedlam. The explosions within the V-arranged six cylinders generate loud digits like 306 hp at 6,500 rpm and 370 Nm at 3,500 to 5,250 rpm.
Melded with the engine is a 7G-TRONIC Plus seven-speed automatic with torque converter lockup, twin turbine damper and Direct Select gearshift. The stick is fixed to the column but if you want full control, there are always the paddle shifters. Get it all right and the W166 can hammer out figures like 0-100 km/h in 7.6 seconds and 235 km/h for a top speed.
As impressive as the numbers are, none of it matters. The ML 350 feels faster than what is suggested. Step harder on the accelerator and the W166 pays back with a steady stream of power and speed. And the noise coming from the engine is empowering – I want more of it.
If getting away from zero is quick, pushing its speed deep into the hundreds is even more. Effortless is the better word to describe the rapid climb in pace, especially when you take into consideration that this SUV is 2,130 kg. Not exactly featherweight.
So high-speed stability scores full marks; four large 265/40 R21 footprints are only part of an entire system that ensures it is so. The W166 rides on an Airmatic air suspension that can increase the distance between the undercarriage and the road with a push of a button. Completing the set is the Active Damping System that relaxes or tenses the chassis with a push of another button; yes, the one with ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ stickered on it.
To keep the SUV’s roof from getting intimate with the tarmac, the ML 350 comes equipped with the Active Curve System. Briefly, the system uses active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles that adapts itself to lateral acceleration, road speed and the ADS Comfort/Sport setting to keep the M-Class the right side up.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to try the Active Curve System in full. In media drives like this, one normally shares the car with two other journalists. My leg of the journey started from one of the rest stop along the North-South Highway to Glenmarie. It was one, long and straight road devoid of any worthy corners and off-roading opportunities. And no, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t stray from the set course, because the ML 350 needed to be returned by 6pm.
So I cannot tell you how well the M-Class stitches up corners or how well it devours the rough off-roads. Nor can I tell you how well the ACS works.
I can tell you one thing, this is a vehicle to travel long distances in. Let’s put aside the fact that the ML 350 has the lungs and legs to complete the marathon in shorter time. It’s the well-appointed interior that will have you leaving the car the in same condition you got in five and a half hours ago.
The rear seats are especially comfortable – there’s extra length that cradles long thighs. And the rear gets air-conditioning together with entertainment in the form of a DVD player and screens fixed to the back of the front seats. Leather is the choice trim for the seat and while it may not look the part, you can luxuriate at the back of the M-Class.
Most of the front is covered in skin, too. Dashboard, transmission tunnel and door cards have that unmistakable luxuriousness about it. The highlight here, similar to the B-Class, is the dashboard element that you can either opt for in gloss or matt wood. I’d recommend the matt wood.
Ergonomics are excellent and if it isn’t, you can adjust the seat and steering to fit you like a tailored suit. The control panel on the centre console is closer than one arm’s length (assuming you have the right driving position) and there are steering mounted controls if you prefer to keep both hands on the wheel.
As with all top-range cars, the ML 350 has plenty of interior space. Its wheelbase stops the tape at 2,915 mm. Shoulder room is said to be 34 mm wider in the front and 25 mm in the rear compared to the W164. What the numbers don’t say is how nice and airy the atmosphere is inside. It has all the required room to move around and the plushness that makes you feel exclusive.
This is one good-looking SUV. All of its dimensions – 4,804 mm long, 1,926 wide and 1,758 mm tall with its suspension set on default – carry an attention-demanding presence that is hard to duplicate. The inherited C-pillar, the long proportions with short overhangs, the Mercedes star in the middle of the grille, the 21 inch 5 twin-spoke AMG wheels and the lights all play its part is turning on the M-Class’ rugged charm.
My drive with the SUV was cut far too early and there were plenty of things left unexplored. As such, it is hard to find faults with this one. One thing is for sure, this is one vehicle that you’ll want to drive again, after you have just driven it.
As the title clearly says, this is a preview of the M-Class. Once the car is available for a longer term, do know that you’ll be getting the complete tear down of the ML 350.