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2006 Mercedes Benz ML500

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San Francisco: When Mercedes Benz leaped into the American sport utility market back in 1997, they modeled their new ML series on the popular SUVs of the day, such as the Ford Explorer. They even built a brand-new assembly plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Over the years, more than half a million units have rolled out of that factory, about half of them exported out of the U.S.

Back in the late 1990s, the biggest difference between other midsize and large SUVs and the Mercedes entry was that this car was not based on a truck platform. That gave the ML series vehicles a more comfortable ride and better handling. Mercedes Benz was the first German company to take the SUV seriously. 

Today, a wide selection of luxury SUVs is available. So, the ML was overdue for a redo, and the 2006 model is truly transformed. Its appearance echoes the design philosophy of the Mercedes cars since 1997. The sides are deeply sculpted, the headlamps glittery. The grille is toothier. The vehicle looks like itís ready to pounce.

The interior is completely revamped as well. It conveys a much more luxurious and vivacious feeling than the old model, which always seemed a little plain to me. The new ML evokes the E Class and S Class sedans. The gleam of metallic accents, a popular styling trend, perks up what used to be a somber Teutonic interior. The handsome chrome ringed gauges poke out artfully from under their binnacle, and the center vents on the dash jut out from tubes. Everything is in motion, conveying quick transit whether youíre sitting behind the wheel or at a light in another car, checking the ML out.

The new ML is significantly larger, adding 3.7 inches to the wheelbase and nearly six inches to overall length. Wheelbase increases generally mean more legroom, and the new ML delivers. Underneath is an all-new unit body platform with upgraded suspension bits. The four-link rear suspension is much more sophisticated than that of a typical SUV.

You can choose from the ML350, with a 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower, or the ML500, with its five-liter V8 boasting a macho 302 horsepower. My Iridium Silver test unit was of the latter group. Naturally, you pay at the pump with this much potency under the twin-vented hood. The EPA gives the car a 14 City, 19 Highway rating. Because the fuel economy display reset is hard to find, no one had ever reset it, so I was able to see the accumulated mileage of the carís entire 2,814 miles and it delivered 16.3 mpg.

The ML500 boasts an amazing seven-speed automatic transmission. With a wider range of gears to choose from, it shifts more quickly and also gives greater fuel economy. The electronic controls enable instant downshifts of more than one gear at a time, so the engine can be engaged at the best spot for high performance. You can hardly feel it working. The tiny shift lever, mounted on the steering column, is easy to use, but feels a little like a toy at first.

Itís unlikely that most owners will risk taking their pride and joy off road, but the ML500 does have full-time four-wheel drive. It uses three open differentials, so you can drive in snow, ice, dirt, or even on the highway without having to make any manual changes.

For extra safe offroading, the ML comes with Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR). You set a speed between 4 and 12 miles per hour and the car automatically moves downhill at that speed without driver intervention. When climbing, a hill holder system keeps the brake engaged while you change your foot to the accelerator. So San Francisco is easy to drive in again. 

The ML is loaded with the expected equipment, such as power windows (all four windows go up and down with one touch), cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a dust filter, and a two-zone air conditioning system. The cupholders are illuminated. But I was surprised that in a car of this level the steering wheel tilt and telescope were manual adjustments, and that a standard flip-it-yourself day/night mirror hung from the ceiling.

Driving a car like this spoils you. It is big without being boat like, luxurious without being ostentatious, powerful without being overwhelming, and the fittings and surfaces are exquisite.

The ML350 starts out at $40,525 and the ML500 begins at $49,275. This is not a cheap car. Even at this elevated price level, thereís a lot you can add. My tester, for example, charged $690 for the silver paint! The Sunroof Package ($1,290) added, as expected, a sunroof and threw in rain sensing wipers. The Premium Package ($3,750) brought leather-covered multi-contour seats, real burl walnut trim, a navigation system, a beautiful wood and leather steering wheel, a power liftgate (slow but effective), and premium lighting. Shouldnít leather seats be standard on a $50,000 car?

For $55,000 and change my Mercedes-Benz ML500 was the kind of car youíd be glad to drive, or ride in all day long. While the original ML felt a little ordinary, this one delivers 100 percent of what Mercedes-Benz customers want.  By Steve Schaefer   © AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

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Byline:  Syndicated content provided by Tony Leopardo © AutoWire.Net
Column Name: 
 The new ML500 delivers what MBZ customers want
 The 2006 Mercedes Benz ML500
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Photo Caption: 
 The 2006 Mercedes Benz ML500
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Mercedes Benz Internet Media
Series #:   2006 - 12

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