Mercedes Benz has invested $600 million in the American plant to tackle quality issues and it seems to have been money well spent. The exterior of the five-seat car is longer, lower and wider than the 1998 car but it's still van-like at the rear with the front and side views far more appealing. The cheese grater grille dominates the car and lets the world know you have a Mercedes.

The interior in the first ML was shoddy. Materials used are now less dubious although my test car’s fully black interior is bleak and a colour choice best avoided. Generally the interior is a decent place to be as the usual Merc DNA is present. There are 497 litres of boot space (smaller than VW Passat or Ford Mondeo) with up to 2,050 litres when the rear seats are folded down. If that’s not enough and you need another 112 litres of space (don’t we all sometime!) you can get the option of a removable rear seat unit.

Underneath the ML features permanent four-wheel-drive (4ETS) and a conventional steel spring suspension set up, or for a premium (€3,468) you can get ‘Airmatic’ air suspension. The ride is firm but comfortable and it is only on twisty ‘B’ roads you feel the car’s bulk. Like all Mercedes the ML’s steering would benefit from being better geared to make it more responsive at real world speeds (i.e. less turns of the steering wheel lock to lock). It’s reassuring to know you could sneeze while holding the steering wheel flat out on an autobahn without dramatically altering the car’s course, but we don’t have autobahn here and I don’t want to feel like I’m steering a steamroller about town. The high driving position is commanding and goes someway towards protecting the driver from dirty looks from the Green brigade.

Engines available come in V6 form (ML 280CDi, ML 350CDi & ML350) with the top of the range €95,960 ML500 featuring a V8 (0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds). A fire-breathing ML63 AMG is available by special order. The most impressive unit is fitted in my test car the 320 turbo diesel (€73,975). With 224bhp and 510nm of torque on tap the four-wheel-drive sprints from 0-100km/h in just 8.6 seconds and delivers nearly 30 to the gallon in old money. The ML also gets a new automatic gearbox (7G-Tronic) that is simply super, a joy to use and standard across the range. The auto features what Mercedes calls ‘Direct Select’ which allows you to change gear via steering wheel-mounted buttons.
Just to depress you a little in the US an ML350 costs $40,000 (€31,811 approx) here it’s €73,975! Rugged styling has always been the key feature in any large SUV but public opinion is turning against big four-wheel-drives.

If I were casting an action movie the ML would be the cool bad guy. If you’re outraged by the ML’s size wait until you see the new Mercedes Benz ‘GL’ seven-seater – it’s a monster, albeit a very practical one!

Michael Sheridan