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Mercedes-Benz ML350 Class


I seriously can’t get a hang of these Germans. Honestly. Earlier this year, they launched this four-ringed monstrous SUV that looks like it’s going to suck up anything in its path. Then they go around doing a nip-and-tuck job on another of their SUVs... er, SAVs, dump in a third row of seats and a whopping 350-horsepower V8. And now they decide it’s time to get their Alabama-built SUV into the country.
DaimlerChrysler India just had to do it. After all, the Q7 is already here while BMW readies its Indian script, where the X5 plays the role of a CBU import. The new Mercedes-Benz M-Class was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 2005 and all they had to do was let loose some Indian motoring hacks at it. I had the ML350 at my disposal, while the others spent time driving other three-pointed stars as part of the DaimlerChrysler Golden Triangle drive. This was the Agra-Jaipur stretch and I switched from a C 200K to this, Mercedes’ second-generation M-Class at Bharatpur sanctuary.

You would expect migratory birds to welcome the entourage but alas, this December the artificial lakes had run dry and the Sarus cranes decided to give it a miss. But I wasn’t complaining. The 3.5-litre V6 has enough of that ‘prodigious’ power to keep my senses satiated, visual as well as aural. Visually the engine bay is stunning with all that wonderful plumbing and so is the silhouette that has a certain flow to it. It isn’t a beefcake by any mile, but a rather classy, elegant design that doesn’t stir the senses yet doesn’t leave you looking for another synonym for plain jane. The lines are sharper than its predecessor from the bonnet to the roof. The fly in the design ointment is that tail-lamp, which seems more like an after-thought than sheer design brilliance.

Slide inside and the design theme gains further credence. Unlike the previous generation, which had reputation as a poorly put together car, this one sticks to better standards. For example, the centre console feels like it’s been bolted to the chassis. The buttons have a nice soft feel, the texture of the dashboard feels rich and those aircon vents look like they are the ones on the Pagani Zonda. Minus the piping. The steering wheel feels a tad large, but grips your palms well.

Like in any other Merc, the controls have that typical logical layout so it isn’t difficult to settle in from one Merc to another. Adjust the seat using the eight-way settings to your liking, check the steering for height and reach, then crank up the V6 and try and keep your right foot under control. It’s so easy to get carried away by the 272 horsepower six-cylinder engine, you would be hard pressed to believe the same motor powers the rather sedate S-Class. Unlike the S 350, this one is a little more gruff and seems more eager to put this SUV into three-digit land.

The 100 kilometre-odd drive to the Amar Vilas Lake Palace was the ideal stretch to put it through its paces. The four-lane highway is being readied in a few stretches, so one had to go off-road momentarily before hitting some smooth tarmac, only to repeat the process a few hundred metres later. Shifting involves using the seven-speed automatic via a tiptronic-style gearshift, with toggle switches and not buttons. Sounds neat indeed but takes some time getting used to. And it is when you are in one of those lower gears and the engine threatens to rev in the higher range do you realise why this engine is so good. Around the 4000 rpm mark, the engine suddenly starts knocking around with your auditory senses. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect a very rorty sounding intake roar to play party pooper. But what a roar! It is so intoxicating that you want to stay in the higher rev-band, fuel efficiency be damned. Not that owners of such a vehicle would be worried about it, and if they do, they can opt for the equally eye popping ML320 CDI diesel while going about saving their greenbacks.

However exhilarating the engine might be, the grip levels are equally impressive. The larger 17-inch wheels do a good job of putting you through corners, even if the traction control kicks in at its own will. But it doesn’t help ride quality. It is somewhat thrashy in any setting, sport or comfort. Even when it was my co-driver, a fellow motoring journo who put the M-Class through its rigours while I tried to enjoy a rear seat drive, it wasn’t exactly comfortable. The double wishbone suspension at the front and four-link suspension at the rear give it sporty pretensions, but not magic-carpet like ride quality. Like BMW with their new X5, dudes at the Mercedes dynamic centre have created an SUV that is more at home on tarmac. The angle of the rear seat is also a bit upright, while under thigh support could have been better. Over typical Indian highways that aren’t exactly runway smooth, it can be a bit of an issue.

At 70 big ones, the M-Class isn’t cheap. But if you’ve driven the previous generation model, you can see why it is justified. It is better built, handles like a car, is unbelievably sporty to drive and is pleasing to the eye. And in true German fashion, it feels like it belongs to the upper crest. Which reminds me, another ‘posh’ German auto manufacturer has revised their existing mammoth of an SUV to take on the M-Class, X5 and Q7. Phew! When will these Germans stop? Not that I am complaining.