That bit of psychological auto trickery may already be familiar to other drivers out there, but believe me when I tell you these full-time M-Class drivers might be on to something: The new M-Class is one alluring SUV.Like the ML350, the silver ML550 I tested had a big, bold grille with a large three-pointed star in it. This predominant feature lets everyone on the road know some money was spent on this SUV. I'm not sure if that was the intended effect, but if you want status, the M-Class has it displayed right out front.
The emblem doesn't detract from the overall styling, though; everything about this SUV is big and bold. Unlike the middle-of-the-road previous generation, the current M-Class can stand out on the road. Small details like carved taillights and numerous creases along the body show that Mercedes spent some time on the design. Silver is, of course, the most boring of car colors, but matched with the large exhaust outlets, the metal-topped sideboards and that grille, it looked great. During the 10 days I had this car, I passed a number of models in black, white and dark red that were all equally striking.
Inside, the cabin is dark and elegant — dark because the black leather in our test car covered every inch of interior space. There's little room left for the dark wood accents, which I thought were too subtle in this color scheme. Gray and tan leather are also available, as is aluminum trim.The nice thing about being able to afford the ML550 is the 382- V-8 under its hood. Calling this SUV "fast" is an understatement. Mercedes says it goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. That's muscle-car fast. This muscle SUV had me flooring it whenever I could to get the engine to come to life. Even so, I'm sure even my most enthusiastic driving didn't put the full power of the ML550 to the test.
There are shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel so drivers can select any of the automatic transmission's seven gears manually at any time. The location seems odd in that they're essentially hidden from view, but ergonomically they make a lot more sense than the funky column-mounted gear-selector stalk you use to move from Park to Neutral to Drive to Reverse. I'm not a huge fan of paddles if they don't do a better job of accelerating than just plain mashing the gas pedal, but I surprisingly found both methods of joyriding enjoyable in the M-Class.
The other big surprise was at the pump, where I realized I was getting more than 16 mpg during all this pedal-mashing and lots of stop-and-go rush hour traffic. I logged almost 1, 000 miles during my long loan, and my gas mileage stayed at that 16-plus-mpg number. That's dead-on with the EPA's 13/18 mpg (city/highway) ratings. Sure, you're pumping premium into the ML, but these numbers are quite good for the class, and especially for this much power. On open highway trips of 50-plus miles, the trip computer had me in the low-20-mpg range.
Handling was superb. All models feature all-wheel drive, and the ML550 has 19-inch wheels and tires that contributed to an extremely comforting, planted feeling at all times. The M-Class also has an optional selectable suspension that moves between automatic, Sport and Comfort modes. Many other luxury cars on the market feature similar setups, but few work quite as transparently as the M-Class'. The Comfort setting did make the ride smoother on highways, turning this otherwise bruising SUV into a great cruiser. The wife almost enjoyed a long commute in bumper-to-bumper traffic because it was so comfortable. When you hit the off-ramp, though, you'll want it in Sport mode, as the suspension stiffens and turns the handling quotient up a bit. The bumps also make themselves well known in this setting.
I found myself in Comfort mode — why anyone would choose the default mode, I'm not sure — during long commutes and with passengers in the car. At all other times, I drove in Sport.