Big SUVs often come with prejudgments and stereotypes in tow. Sometimes the stereotypical shoe fits. The ML550's lackluster fuel economy is probably the best example of this. A "Blue Efficiency" badge that boasts of the M-Class' increased efficiency does little to make us feel better about an EPA-estimated 17 mpg combined fuel economy.
However, our time with the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML550 4Matic was full of surprises. The big SUV surprised me with its nimble and effortless low-speed driving dynamics and the ease with which it took to San Francisco parallel parking; with its gentle but powerful acceleration and stability at highway speeds; and with its smartly implemented voice command technology and value for the dollar spent.
Cabin tech: Comand starts to show its age
The ML550 comes standard with an HD Radio tuner, a DVD audio and video player, Bluetooth hands-free calling, an SD card reader, and a 7-inch color display that is commanded via Mercedes-Benz's Comand central controller. There's also Benz's Mbrace telematics service powered by Hughes Telematics with six months of complimentary service. That covers most of the cabin tech bases that we look for, but it's pretty basic as baseline systems go.
Thankfully, our ML was equipped with a $3,600 P01 package that essentially buffs up its infotainment technology. For your bucks, you get the Comand Navigation system, a media interface that brings iPod, USB, and auxiliary audio inputs, a rearview camera system, SiriusXM Satellite Radio with traffic and weather data, and voice command for the whole kit and caboodle.
We've seen this infotainment bundle in action in a number of previous Mercedes-Benz vehicles and it checks all of the right boxes where features are concerned. 3D maps with terrain and building data are very cool features when you're on the showroom floor, and the weather forecasts with radar maps are also great eye candy. However, living with the system can be a bit annoying.
The Comand system's three-tiered interface, for example, requires that you tap up on the controller to get to the different modes of operation and tap down to access mode-specific options...usually. Tapping up on the map screen causes you to scroll the map, which is only a minor annoyance until the 10th time you do it in a week. Then, it becomes a reason to raise your voice. Those fancy 3D buildings are cool until they get in the way of seeing the actual roads on the map. Destination search lacks an On Route option, which means that an act as simple a searching for fuel along your current navigation route can take you pretty far off of your chosen path and is much more difficult than it should be.
Meanwhile, the spoken turn-by-turn directions seem to leave out relevant data. On many occasions, I was told to "Prepare to turn left" but not given or shown a distance to the next turn. Is it in 2 miles or two blocks, Comand? This is important information and not having it caused my anxiety levels to soar when piloting the large SUV in heavy traffic to an unknown destination.
Fortunately, most of the Comand system's other functions operated nearly flawlessly. The voice command system, for example, gives users access to nearly every element of the navigation, hands-free calling, and audio system with little more than a few spoken words.
The system did a fairly good job of understanding what I was trying to say, but in the few instances where I had to repeat myself two to three times (to say "Tehama Street," for example), the system would stop me and simply ask me to spell out the destination instead. That's the sort of attention to detail that I like to see in all voice command systems, as it saves a lot of frustration and guessing the pronunciation that the computer is looking for.