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Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDI Bluetec - When I'm Feeling Blue

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America’s got the blues. No, it’s nothing to do with the genre of music which I think is America’s greatest contribution to the world along with jazz, but the depression that you get from rising fuel prices. I have heard that this country, with less than five per cent of the world’s population, consumes 25 per cent of the world’s energy resources. No wonder they are feeling the pinch. Big car and truck sales are slowing down while small and hybrid cars are virtually flying out of showrooms. In June, the Honda Civic displaced the 26-year record of the Ford F-150 as the biggest selling automobile in the States (Imagine, they consider the Civic fuel efficient. What happens when the Yankees try out the Alto or the Logan?). 

The situation is so grim that car ads on radio stations talk mostly about fuel efficiency, while radio jockeys give tips on fuel efficient driving. I heard this for example: ‘Did you know that UPS saved over three million litres of fuel last year by simply asking their drivers to avoid left turns?’ The jockey explained that the courier company’s drivers would wait a long time for the signal to turn left. Instead of that, UPS simply asked them to keep driving and go through an alternative route, thus avoid idling the engine unnecessarily and wasting fuel. I swear I heard this with my own ears.

But you know, all this comes to nought when you see a monster F-350 effortlessly lugging a trailer with six new Hyundai Accents on board. Or the various Silverados, Titans, Tundras and Suburbans going about their duties on American roads. In this larger-than-life country, these larger-than-life machines are integral to the landscape.   So what the hell do you do? Well, Mercedes-Benz has a solution of sorts. And it’s diesel... Well, fuel efficient diesel engines that are the cleanest oil-burners in the world too, all thanks to a technology called BlueTec (See box: True Blue). Actually, it has been around for almost two years in the US, when Mercedes-Benz introduced the E 320 BlueTec in October 2006. The launch was timed to coincide with the introduction of low-sulphur diesel in the US. But this time around, Mercedes-Benz has gone on the offensive. That’s because they have the technology that not only meets America’s extra-strict standards for diesel vehicles, but are the first to be allowed to register diesel SUVs in all 50 US states. What’s more, the BlueTec Mercs now get the same tax credits as hybrids. Now that is something to boast about.tOkay, sorry for that long-winded preface, but I just had to give you all that perspective before telling you what the updated ML-Class and the GL-Class are all about. Especially when the talking point of these two cars is that they use BlueTec. 

Now Vermont is very beautiful, but it’s another thing that I didn’t know a state called Vermont actually existed in the US – it’s one of those low profile states. But it is so green, picturesque and sensitive that you imagine that flowers and grass will wilt if a Hummer passed by. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the facelifted ML 320 CDI BlueTec, the gorgeous landscape unwinds around me. That too, rather slowly. It’s not that because the Merc uses BlueTec, it saps power from the engine – far from it. It’s because speed limits are pretty ridiculous in the US, and here in Vermont, a 65 mph limit on the Interstate – a whisker over 100 kph – is all that you are legally permitted to do. Such a pity actually, as the ML’s torquey diesel motor will allow it to easily attain speeds well in excess 200 kph, while it can do the 0-96 kph dash in just 8.5 seconds. 

Right now, the speeds are slow enough for me to dwell on the interiors of the car. The updated ML has got itself newly designed seats and various upgrades in lining and trim. What has significantly changed on the inside is a new four-spoke steering wheel with paddles. It is now better to hold, while feedback was never an issue in the first place – it is well-weighted, while the degree of tightness when speeds increase is just right. The other big change on the inside is a new Comand system, which is now more intuitive and friendly to use, and it has been fitted with some smart new features as well. I had tuned to satellite radio and had a constant stream of classic ‘80s music emerging from the fancy Harman Kardon stereo. Brilliant. Even more so because there is no indication that is an oil-burner outside.  

These common-rail motors are now so much better that Noise-Vibration-Harshness seem to be a thing of the past; they are much more refined and sophisticated, without losing out on output. The 24-valve 2987cc V6 that does duty here develops 210 bhp at 3400 revs and a staggering 54.4 kgm arriving at just 1600 rpm. The engine of course is paired with the 7G-Tronic automatic transmission. The powertrain is really fantastic, as it gives you tremendous driving flexibility.

For instance, I am on a very pretty two-lane country road, and a slow-moving farmer’s pickup is blocking my path entirely. Because the road is narrow, the yellow line in the centre says no overtaking. Yeah, try telling that to a brown Indian (as opposed to red). I can’t wait no more, I see that the coast is clear and simply stomp on the pedal. Whoosh. I am through without any effort, no downshifting required. But what surprised me was that the transmission didn’t feel like it downshifted anyway. It just accelerated like a locomotive or like an electric car, without pausing to collect its breath. Amazing. The same gearbox in a different application – like in the E-Class back home for instance – behaves differently. That, plus the tremendous torque on offer means the ML 320 CDI is an immensely driveable machine.

More proof. Mercedes-Benz laid out a small offroad course for us to sample. Now this ML was a Euro-spec version, which means it had options of locking the differentials and shifting to low ratios. Across the rather difficult conditions, I had no reason again to use the paddles or shift manually. The engine/gearbox combo did all the thinking whether I was descending a very steep incline, negotiating a thick chocolatey sludge-like stream or threading through trees.   Finally, unlike the first generation ML, the new one is really a capable off-roader. Ground clearance issues, approach and departure angles are all sorted and form now follows function. It may have a monocoque structure, but the ML now means business both on- and off-road. The exterior design has been through a tiny makeover as well. The ML now gets a fresh front visage with a redesigned grille, new headlamps, bigger exterior mirrors, a fresh rear bumper and updated tail lamps. The ML was always a good-looking SUV and now it looks the part of being a serious one too. Before you ask, yes, the new ML-Class will be on sale in India very soon now.

When it comes to dynamics, the ML’s ride is surprisingly not pliant as I expected an American-spec SUV to be. I would say it’s more BMW X5-ish rather than the cosseting feeling you get in a Mercedes-Benz... you know, the star’s promise that it will separate you from the vagaries of the road. This despite the option of choosing sport, comfort and automatic settings. In fact I tried all three on a rocky stretch of road for some pictures, and felt that the auto mode was best. But for good, smooth stretches, I would keep it in comfort mode rather than sport. The monocoque construction also means the handling is now vastly better than the first generation ML, which utilised body-on-chassis construction. The ML has never been so nimble and confident on corners and is wonderfully poised on the curvy roads that Vermont had to offer.  

The roads here in Vermont are a motorcyclist’s dream, well-marked, with clear sightlines and gentle curves. Pablo who was sitting with me was salivating for a motorcycle. But I had no reason to complain. As I had the GL! Okay, agreed it’s not a sportscar, which would have been really wonderful here (how about the SL500 BlueTec next time, Mercedes?), but can you believe it, I am so positive about a FULL-SIZE SUV on sportscar roads? The GL is huge. When you look at it in isolation, you have to step back a mile to take the full thing, but we’re in the US remember? It makes the ML look small! The GL may not be much of a looker compared to the smaller ML, in fact it looks slightly elderly now. And it is not destined for our shores (but the smaller GLK – which competes with the BMW X3 and the upcoming Audi Q5 – is a sureshot). 

For its size, the GL 320 CDI surprisingly is so much at home on these curvy roads that it is a revelation. Again, like in the ML, you can choose the suspension settings, and here in sport mode, it handles in such a manner that would make the smaller ML blush. The GL shrinks on curvy roads and the steering setup is also up to the task of giving you great feedback. Yet despite all this, the ride quality of the GL is the best I have experienced in an SUV. It is what you would call benchmark and it is what the three-pointed star should be all about. The GL just pampers you; whether you are in the driver’s seat or are in the middle row, it does not discriminate.

Behind the wheel, I was so comfortable that I was half-tempted to get onto Route 66. Los Angeles, here I come. Okay, maybe not today, but someday. And with the GL and its BlueTec, no problem to go across the various states and no issue with fuel consumption either! The powertrain is identical to the ML, so the characteristics I described of the engine are the same here as well. Despite the extra weight, you don’t experience any lag when it comes to power delivery. All thanks to that gobs of torque at low revs. 

Oh, and one more thing. Like the GL, BlueTec will take a long time coming to India. The fuel quality and adulteration is something it cannot handle just as yet, maybe Mercedes-Benz will develop BlackTec for us in the interim. You may be surprised to know that Mercedes developed this technology for commercial vehicles first in Europe, and only then it was used in diesel passenger vehicles. But in the US, it may be difficult to sell the concept, as I think Americans use gasoline for even their french fries. One, diesel is expensive – in this New England area, the price for petrol is around $4.14 a gallon while diesel’s at $4.86 (that translates to approximately Rs 40.50 for a litre of petrol and Rs 47.50 for the sticky fuel). Then, diesel is usually at the dirty section of fuel pumps – imagine taking your Merc there. 

So it has to call for a massive change in attitude by the Americans. The tax credits should help.But the way I see it, diesel engines’ inherent strength of better torque at low rpm should convince the Americans that you need not sacrifice your lumbering monsters. Keep your F-350s and Suburbans, just run them on diesel. A little injection of AdBlue should do the trick, no?