By on May 19, 2006

ML5001.jpgThe Upper Middle Fork road into Washington State’s Snoqualmie National Forest is the kind of road a SUV buyer sees all the time– in glossy ads. It’s a roller-coaster ride of immense potholes, fist-sized rocks and ankle-deep snow that carves through an ancient, awe-inspiring landscape. As such, it’s the perfect testing ground for the Mercedes-Benz ML500: a vehicle appealing to well-heeled suburbanites who want to know they could drive their $63k SUV down treacherous roads like this, at speed, even though they never will.

New flash: if they want to, they can. More importantly, the ML is finally ready for its close-up. In both proportion and detail, Merc’s off-roader is not so much re-styled as re-designed. Integrated fender flares, a sharply raked windshield and a longer and wider body give the new ML a cleaner, more form-following-function deportment. The big chrome grille in the nose may be a bit garish, and the Merc's prow may have grown like Pinocchio’s compared to the previous model's, but there’s a point to it (literally): aerodynamics. The surface development leads to sides with gentle highlights rather than cutting edges. The back, meanwhile, cuts off like a Bush press conference gone bad.

ML5002.jpgThe previous generation ML’s fixtures and fittings were more Chevy Malibu than Mercedes Benz. The new model redresses the problem with the kind of soft touch plastics previously reserved for a home-brew espresso machine, and leather seats as soothingly tactile as a well-groomed Labrador. To keep it party real, Mercedes decorated the cabin with more chrome than you’ll find in a ‘60’s yank tank. Deploying the material on the four-armed steering wheel and the two-pod instrument panel brings the bling.

Stunters and flossers engage the ML’s killer ICE through a read-out display that looks like the War Room in “Doctor Strangelove;” which dovetails nicely with a navigation system boasting all the charm of HAL in “2001.” (Luddites can retreat to knobs and map-based martial strife.) To initiate forward motion, drivers can twiddle paddles on the back of the steering wheel or manipulate a stubby stalk jutting off the steering wheel. Press the lever down and the letter “D” appears in the instrument panel. Push it up and, counter-intuitively enough, you’re heading backwards. Push the bugger in, and there’s your “N.” And there you have it.

 Twisting the key fob activates the ML’s 5.0-liter, 24-valve V8. Not that you’d know it; the ML is quieter than a Jesuit study hall. As you’d expect (and hope) from a German V8, the ML’s runs silent, runs deep. More specifically, there are 339 pound-feet of twist underfoot between 2700 and 4750 rpm. That’s enough grunt to facilitate seriously smooth takeoffs, easy cruising and relatively safe see-you-later sucker maneuvers. The ML’s smooth spinning mill is hooked-up to Merc’s sublime seven-speed auto-box, which answers any accelerative question with the appropriate gear and instantaneous thrust.

The ML’s suspension displays equal grace and charm. Mercedes switched from ladder-frame to unibody construction, stretched the M-class’s wheelbase, lowered the ride height and widened the front and rear tracks. This new set-up complements the new suspension set-up: front control arms (front) and a four-link axle (rear). So equipped, the ML does that Mercedes magic carpet thing; on the open road to your off-road adventure, there’s barely a jolt. Even while negotiating potholes that looked like the aftermath of roadside bombs, the ML never loses its carma. Or its footing. The ML maintains excellent directional stability in the corners. The suspension set-up limits body roll to an initial heave, after which the ML hangs on with both tenacity and poise.

ML5004.jpg To broaden their market and satisfy skiers, Mercedes’ engineers replaced the old ML’s two-speed transfer case with a full-time four-wheel drive system using three conventional open differentials. (An upcoming off-road package will offer locking center and rear differentials.) They also fitted a four-wheel electronic traction control system that varies torque from front-to-rear and side-to-side. It’s no Rubicon runner, but the ML will slide around a dirt road with a midget racer's agility. Of course, the ML effortlessly dismisses muddy fields, quickly traverses torrential rain and easily surmounts snow (with the proper footwear). In sum, the ML is the kind of machine that gets you out of any trouble short of genuine boulder business.

The Mercedes ML500 is the Forest Gump of sport utilities. Wheel it into a city setting– where soccer Moms desperately need those stinkin’ badges– and the ML fits right in. It’s safe, comfortable, a bit bling and ever-so chi-chi. Conversely, dump the ML into a rural locale– where SUV drivers have the “no guts, no glory” philosophy tattooed on their forehead– and you’re good to go. Good old boys (with lots of good old cash) and suburbanites (with lots of good old cash) have found their ideal rig.

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