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Mercedes-Benz engineers like to tell you that the company's philosophy involves starting with an engine and building a car around it. Based on the number of models that make use of the company's 5.5-liter V-8, we find it hard to disagree. Having reviewed the S550, the E550, the SL550, and the CL550, we were hardly surprised when the midsize ML SUV arrived at our garage furnished with the 382-horsepower flagship power plant. Like its stable mates, the ML550 also comes equipped with Benz's advanced seven-speed automatic transmission and some of the less-than-advanced cabin tech that we have come to associate with the current generation of Mercedes' base-level COMAND system.
Test the tech: iPod integration
Our Mercedes-Benz ML550 tester came with the unusual luxury of an optional iPod adapter. While we regularly note the availability of iPod adapters on new cars, they are usually dealer installs, so we don't get the chance to test them out in our review models (a rare exception being the 2008 Scion xB , which comes with an iPod adapter as standard). Mercedes promotes its $375 iPod integration kit with the claim that "taking your personal music collection with you wherever you go has never been easier." We had high hopes, therefore, when we plugged our iPod Nano into the ML550's glove-box mounted adapter.
As we found in our review of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550, the instrument panel display on current-generation Benz models is often a far more useful system than the in-dash COMAND system. Nevertheless, the iPod interface is far from intuitive. With an iPod connected and AUX selected as a source, we had to press the steering wheel-mounted List button until the main iPod menu showed up on the white-on-black display. Using the up and down buttons on the left of the steering wheel, we could then cycle through the familiar top-level iPod category menu (songs, artists, albums, genres, shuffle, and so on) using the arrow buttons. To make a selection, we then had to use the Make Call telephone button on the right-hand side of the steering wheel.
In the cabin
The ML550 displays all of the cabin comfort you might expect from a Mercedes SUV. Our tester came with the optional $1,975 leather seating package as well as an attractive walnut-burl trim for the central stack and door trim, and a wood-and-leather trimmed steering wheel. We found the seats in the ML550 to be supportive to the point of being firm: having driven from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back over the course of the past three days, your correspondent still has a numb backside as of this writing.
Our ML550 came with the $8,500 Premium III trim level, which gave it the familiar Mercedes COMAND interface with navigation comprising a small LCD screen set low in the dash and surrounded by black plastic buttons. As we found in our reviews of the GL450, the ML320, and the E320 Bluetec, the current-generation GPS navigation system from Mercedes-Benz comes up short in comparison to that of other premium automakers. Aside from its awkwardly low positioning, the COMAND display delivers blocky maps, which lack the crispness of many other systems on the market. Destination entry requires a fiddly joystick, which must be used to input letters one at a time. The joystick has the inclination to either tip over when attempting to make a letter selection or it fails to register a selection, requiring drivers to push it in multiple times.
With the destination set, we followed the turn-by-turn directions to find--to our considerable disappointment--that not only was there no Mexican restaurant at the destination, we were also in the middle of a residential estate, suggesting that there had never been a restaurant there in the first place. Hungry and dejected, we got back on the freeway and stopped at the next Carl's Jr. for a burger.