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.
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.
Despite specifying a rearview camera as part of the aforementioned P01 package, our ML550 did not appear to be equipped with one. At the very least, the camera never came on while reversing until I found on the last day of testing that someone had deactivated the system using a hidden menu option. Fortunately, the M-Class features pretty exceptional rearward visibility for a large SUV, light and effortless steering, and a crazy-tight turning radius, making this one of the easiest-to-park SUVs that I've ever tested, even without the aid of a camera!
It's far from a perfect system and it's starting to show its age, but the Mercedes-Benz Comand system present in the M-Class is competent and fairly easy to live with. There are a ton of options available to bend the computer to your will. Don't like the 3D buildings? I didn't, so I turned them off. Don't like using the Comand three-tier interface? Well, there are physical buttons that quickly jump among the different infotainment modes right there on the dashboard. More so than any other infotainment system that I've tested, the Comand setup simply takes a lot of getting used to.
It's worth taking the time to get used to Comand, because the rest of the ML550 is rather good. Under its hood is a 4.6-liter, bi-turbo V-8 engine that outputs 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. That power exits the engine by way of a seven-speed automatic transmission to a full-time all-wheel-drive system dubbed 4Matic. Acceleration from a stop isn't what I'd call dramatic. The ML550 won't snap your neck, but it will hold you firmly against its optional $1,620 black leather seats. There's an obvious strength, but the big Benz isn't trying to hurt you with it. If you've ever done a 0-60 run in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. (OK, maybe that was a bad example.)
But the ML550 isn't only about straight-line speed; there's also a lot to be said about the tech built into making this SUV turn. For example, there's the adaptive power steering that is so light that it can be steered around a parking lot with just one finger, but firms up as you gain speed so it doesn't feel ponderous and twitchy on the highway. There's the Agility Control adaptive suspension system that lets the ML550 soak up bumps and jolts despite rolling on 19-inch wheels but still control its body roll when asked to corner. Don't get too crazy around those twisties, though -- as good as M-B's engineers are, they're not "defy the laws of physics" good. Push it too hard and the 550 will understeer like the nearly 5,000-pound SUV on all-season tires that it is. She's a cruiser, not a carver.
The M-Class comes standard with a number of around-town driver-aid features, including downhill speed regulation and an adaptive brake system that automatically dries the rotors when driving in wet weather, assists on hills by holding the brakes for a few seconds, precharges to reduce reaction time when lifting quickly off of the accelerator, and uses a Brake-Hold feature that lets you relax your feet at long stoplights without worrying about the vehicle creeping forward until you hit the gas pedal. Also standard at this trim level is Mercedes' Attention Assist system, which monitors your behavior for signs of drowsiness and warns with a light and audible chime that you should probably take a break from driving.
Users who want a bit more help at highway speeds can opt for the $850 Lane Tracking Package, which adds Blind Spot Monitoring and a Lane Keeping Assist that vibrates the steering wheel when you cross lane markers without signaling first.
If there's one place that the ML550's performance suffers, it's at the pump. It has an EPA-estimated 15 city and 20 highway miles per gallon, but we averaged only 16.2 mpg despite our best efforts to keep a light pedal foot, and a test cycle that was nearly 50 percent freeway cruising. Potential M-Class buyers interested in maximizing their mpgs should take a look at the 550's sibling, the ML350 Bluetec. This 3-liter turbodiesel-powered model bumps the fuel economy up to 20 city and 27 highway mpg while still netting 455 pound-feet of available torque, meaning that it's green (or is it blue?) but also no slouch in the acceleration and towing capacity departments.
The ML550 starts at $57,590, but our tester adds Palladium Silver paint ($720), black leather seats ($1,620), the P01 tech package ($3,600), and the Lane Tracking package ($850). Add $225 for a heated steering wheel, $550 for a trailer hitch, and a $875 destination charge to reach our as-tested price of $66,030.
Judged against its competitors (other 400-plus-horsepower SUVs with an emphasis on Sport) the ML550 compares favorably. True, an Infiniti FX50 S has it beat on cabin tech, but Benz builds an arguably nicer vehicle around its dashboard. Porsche may slightly outperform the ML550 with its Cayenne S model, but the M-Class costs thousands less when comparably equipped. (Who'd have thought I'd live to see the day when a Benz was a bargain?)
Actually, the model that probably competes the best with the ML550 is its diesel-powered sibling, the ML350 Bluetec. For a starting price that's about $7,000 less than the gasoline-powered model, you get more torque and better fuel economy. Sure, there's a slight drop in horsepower, but even I was unable to feel a difference in performance between the two models. Besides, if you were really after the best driving performance from a big SUV, you'd be looking at the 518-horsepower ML63 AMG and its competitors. (You'd also be a bit daft, but that's just my opinion.) So, just save the money and get the diesel.
|Model||2012 Mercedes-Benz ML550 4Matic|
|Power train||4.6-liter, bi-turbo gasoline V-8 engine, 7-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||15 city, 20 highway, 17 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||16.2|
|Navigation||Comand voice-activated navigation available|
|Bluetooth phone support||Yes|
|Disc player||DVD video and audio|
|MP3 player support||Analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM Radio, CD/MP3|
|Audio system||Premium audio available, not equipped|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera, cruise control (nonadaptive), Blind Spot Monitoring, Lane Keeping Assistance|
|Price as tested||$66,030|