Since it appeared in 1997 as America's first import-branded luxury SUV, the Mercedes-Benz M-class has suffered from a reputation as the mom-mobile of lux-u-vees. This is in part because the ML was launched at a time when SUVs in general were seen as soccer-mom chariots, with game-changing performance utes and crossovers still years away. The minivan-like styling of the original ML320 didn't help, either. Try as Mercedes did to butch up the thing over time—adding body kits, getting AMG into the picture in 2000 with the ML55 AMG, and introducing the potent V-8-powered ML500 in 2002—the M-class's reputation has stuck like macaroni glued to a paper plate.
Too bad, because the ML has actually grown into a rather nice, somewhat sporting luxo-ute, especially in new-for-2008 ML550 array. Powered by the same 5.5-liter V-8 found under the hoods of every other Benz with a "550" suffix, the ML550 is the quickest non-AMG M-class ever. Moreover, it represents reasonably decent value, with not only more performance but also more standard features than in the 268-hp V-6 ML350 and the ML500 it replaces. Indeed, at $53,175, it is the least expensive way into a Benz with said 5.5-liter engine, costing a whopping $24,600 less than the larger, admittedly better equipped GL550 mongo-ute. Sure you need those extra two seats? Our ML550, loaded with optional goodness, rang in at $66,615, though.
AMG: Putting the ML in Manly?
In spite of its reputation, Mercedes claims that every model in the M-class lineup skews male in terms of its buyers. That said, at 70/30 male-to-female, the V-8-powered ML skews far higher than the ML350, which is more evenly split at 53/47. Thus, to drive home the fact that this is supposedly a proven boy car, Mercedes has given its new ML550 the AMG styling treatment, with chrome grille bars, chunky front and rear clips, grommeted running boards, rectangular exhaust tips, and huge 19-inch five-spoke AMG wheels. The formerly optional sunroof has been thrown in for free. Inside, not much has changed, save the inclusion of standard burled- walnut trim and heated front seats.
Err on the Side of Power
That's okay, since we'd rather pay for power over luxury, and to our delight, the ML550 errs on the side of power. Compared with the old 302-horse V-8 in the outgoing ML500, the ML550 makes 26 percent more power and 15 percent more torque, its numbers (which should be familiar by now) coming in at 382 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 391 pound-feet of torque between 2800 and 4800 rpm. Thus endowed, we found the ML550 to be seriously quick, hitting 60 from a standstill in 5.4 seconds, which represents a shaving of more than a second off the old ML500's time of 6.7 seconds. A 14.0-second quarter-mile at an even 100 mph is equally impressive, considering the ute weighs some two-and-a-half tons even without a well-fed driver on board. Can you say, "Quicker than the new Subaru Impreza WRX?" When upping the power, Mercedes upgraded the front brakes but not the performance. Our tester took 178 feet to halt from 70 mph, seven more than the ML350 we tested in 2006. The ML550 mustered only 0.76 g on the skidpad, which is mediocre within its class, but that number is artificially low due to a stability-control system that can't be fully disabled.
During our preview drive in southern Idaho, the ML550 revealed its true nature as a fast, confident, poised highway cruiser in which we could have spent all day without complaint. The interior is lovely, the seating position is just right. The seats held us firmly in place, and between the compliant damping and excellent wind-noise abatement, the ML550 was almost as quiet and serene as an S-class
Is It Enough?
We never complain about more power, especially when it is accompanied by Mercedes-Benz luxury and an attractive price. But still, we wonder if the new engine and the AMG drag will be enough to keep interest in the ML high within the critical rich-dad demographic, especially as more guys'-guy utes like the BMW X6 and the recently updated Porsche Cayenne continue to evolve the art of the performance SUV.
If not, there's always the wife.
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