Mercedes-Benz ML550 Sport--Chicago Cars Direct HD

Test drive and walkaround of a PRISTINE 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550 Sport from Chicago Cars Direct. Outside the change isnt so evident; the new M looks a lot like the old, re-rendered in hi-def. The corners and bodyside lines are a little more creased; the trim and sparse chrome bits a little more defined. The saw-tooth grille insert is reminiscent of machined industrial equipment. Jeweled taillamps and HID headlights complete the high-tech theme. One thing hasnt changed, thoughthat oversized, tri-pointed star on the grille is still suitable for Flava-Flavs accessory drawer. Under the skin, the M has grown up, too. Engine choices are mostly new or updated, from the bread-and-butter V6 ML350 to the tested ML500, with prices increasing concurrent to horsepower. Weve driven the 268-horse ML350 model (at around $39,000 to start), and found it to be smooth if not exactly powerful. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is claimed to be an utterly adequate 8.4 seconds. In other words, its entirely sufficient for the soccer mom stereotype that we often see behind the wheel of these machines. And then theres that V8. The heart of the $48,500 ML500, weve enjoyed this same motor in a number of Benzesand even in this second-heaviest of applications (the new R-Class non-minivan is just a smidge stouter), its a beaut. With 339 lb.-ft. of torque, theres no shortage of off-the-line gruntand the 302 horsepower rating means the M pulls to way beyond our own limits on public roads (self-imposed restraint is prudent when piloting somebody elses spanking-new luxury vehicle, especially a tall one). Even more go is available with the 510hp AMG ML63, but we figure in an SUV, enough is enough. The ML500 hits 60 m.p.h. in under 7 seconds, which even we never found lacking. (For sciences sake, we will reveal that the 0-60 time of the ML63 is said to be 5 seconds flat, with top speed limited at over 155 m.p.h.) In true over-engineered Mercedes tradition, the rest of the greasy bits are more than up to the job of harnessing all that go. 255/55 rubber on 18-inch rims give grip suitable for sports-cars; 50-series tires on 19s are optional. Vented disc brakes of 13.8″ and 13″ diameter front/rear provide plenty of contrasting whoa. The transmission is that famous 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic, which reacts quickly yet serenely to driver inputs, never really feeling stressed. And the suspension, comprised of double wishbones up front and 4-link coils out back, plus gas-charged shocks, is softly compliant on rough roads, yet far from tippy or floaty when pushed. We didnt go too far off road, but weve tested MLs before and found them more than capable of traversing rougher terrain than most owners will ever see. Still, Mercedes outfits the ML500 with 4MATIC full-time all-wheel-drive, so the truck can at least back up the claims its rugged shape makes for it. For extra off-road prowess, Mercedes further fits a standard hill-ascent/descent control system, ESP and Traction Control, and four-channel ABS with off-road programming for better stopping on loose surfaces. Of course, your average Benz pilot probably never pops the hood, much less investigates the hardware under the car. For these folks, the true allure of a vehicle like thisbesides the status afforded by that aforementioned badgeis the opulence to be found inside. And as youd expect, the new ML doesnt fall short. Youd expect leather seats and wood trimand you wouldnt be disappointed. But you can feel the difference between Nappa leather from Italian bulls and leather from, say, Flints finest milk cowsMercedes hides feel twice as thick and yet twice as pliant as your average cow skin. The wood, too, feels not so much like an appliqué as a structural part of the dashboard. Even the interior bits your average driver doesnt often touch are high-class; the dashtop, for instance, has more give than some cars third-row seats. For a mid-size SUV, the ML is pretty roomy, too. Clever packaging gives this new model more passenger space than the outgoing soft-roader, especially in critical areas such as leg-room and elbow-room. An 8-speaker standard stereo, tilt/telescope multi-function steering wheel, automatic climate control, auto up/down windows, rain-sensing wipers and ambient lighting round out the best of the M-Class standard fare. Throw in the coffee table-sized sunroof, power everything, and full gauges with a gorgeous backlighting glow, and you get a truck that imparts a serious feeling of wealth to the drivereven if its just a loaner.

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