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2013 Mercedes ML550 4MATIC Review
A heavenly cabin, but driving purgatory
By Craig Cole, Photography by Craig Cole. Video by AutoGuide.com Staff., Aug. 08, 2013

Politics and religion are two topics best left un-discussed. Nothing has the power to ruin dinner with friends or cause a family gathering to erupt like Mount St. Helens faster than debating supply-side economics or universal healthcare. As with da Vinci’s Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, it’s best to keep your hands off.

FAST FACTS

1. The ML550 is powered by a 4.6L twin-turbo V8 engine with 402 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque.

2. Fuel economy is just 14 MPG city and 20 MPG highway. We averaged only 14 MPG.

3. Base price for the ML550 4MATIC is about $59,000, including destination. The test model provided to AutoGuide for evaluation cost nearly $81,000!

4. Our ML was ready for serious off roading, coming equipped with an adjustable air suspension, a dedicated low-range and hill-descent control.

Likewise these subjects have little business being in a vehicle review, but contrary to common sense and better judgment here we go. If you’re Catholic and want to get in touch with your faith consider driving a Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

What does the Vatican have to do with one of Daimler’s high-priced luxury SUVs? Actually very little, but in case you didn’t know, the armor-plated Popemobile is based on the company’s midsize utility vehicle. If it’s good enough for the Holy Father it ought to be good enough for you.

AN M-CLASS FOR EVERY PURSE AND PURPOSE

 

The M-Class is a capable SUV that fits into the company’s lineup between the small GLK and the three-row GL. It seats five passengers and is offered in a wide array of different trim levels.

If engine output numbers were like flowing water, the base model would be a garden hose. It’s powered by a 3.5-liter gasoline V6 engine that signs, seals and delivers 302 horsepower. The BlueTEC clean diesel serves up a monster 455 lb-ft of torque, which is roughly equivalent to Disney World’s Blizzard Beach water park, though it has a lot less urea. And topping the range is a fire-breathing AMG model with 518 ponies on tap; it’s like Niagara Falls but even more impressive.

Between the BlueTEC and AMG versions sits the ML550. It’s powered by a smooth and explosively powerful 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8. It packs a 402-horsepower punch with 443 lb-ft of torque. It’s the hydrological equivalent of the Mississippi River; unstoppable and seemingly endless, plus the test model provided was just as brown as that silt-laden waterway!

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 01One thing shared with all M-Class vehicles is the transmission. Shifting gears is a smooth and responsive seven-speed automatic.

Base price for an entry-level ML350 is right around 48 grand. If you want to drive away with the version we tested plan on spending about $81,000, including destination and delivery fees.

Our ML550’s $59,000 base price was inflated by a number of pricey options including air suspension ($1,610), an on-and off-road package ($1,640), Mercedes’ “Active Curve System,” a special adjustable suspension setup that helps control body roll during corners ($2,910), and the P01 Package ($3,700), which includes all kinds of luxury additions from power-folding side-view mirrors to voice control; plus there was a big-ticket item inside the vehicle.

INTERIOR MASTERPIECE

 

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 10

The ML550’s cockpit is more ornate than the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. You could argue that rather than Adam, the hand of God reached down and created this interior; Michelangelo just painted it wrong.

Nearly every surface is coated in rich, chocolaty-brown leather. It’s supple, precisely crafted and supremely elegant. Further embellishing things, where appropriate it’s perforated, contrast-stitched and diamond quilted. It amazing there aren’t bite marks throughout the cabin. Like a freshly unwrapped Hershey bar it looks delicious!

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 14Dripping with buttery-soft cow hides the front perches are more akin to thrones than mere automotive seats. The same design motif and luxury leather is carried back one row to the rear chairs, though some lavishness is lost en route. The seats aren’t quite as comfortable and they’re a bit difficult to access thanks to the door openings, which are narrower than the legs of a hipster’s skinny jeans. As a result it requires a certain amount contortion to sit back there. The M-Class loses a few points because of this.

The cockpit’s awe-inspiring opulence comes largely thanks to a pricey option, the “Designo” package, which inflates the bottom line by a whopping $4,600. If “Auburn Brown” ain’t your thing this add-on is also available in black and “Porcelain” white, two colors that should be just and luxurious, though the lightest hue of the trio sounds like a nightmare to keep that way. Better store a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in the glove box to scrub away any grime that accumulates.

ON ROAD

 

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 04

With 402 horsepower the ML’s acceleration is damn-near warp drive. Sure, the AMG model outmuscles it with more than 100 additional ponies but who cares? This is plenty fast in a straight line, plus the engine feels creamier than non-dairy whipped topping and it barks with an unexpectedly loud exhaust system for a luxury vehicle. What more could you want?

Well, decent fuel economy might be nice.

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 05Officially rated at 14 miles per gallon city and 20 highway the ML550’s efficiency is frightful. It’s supposed to average 16 MPG, though we barely managed 14. Be warned, even mild use of the accelerator is practically 8th on the list of Seven Deadly Sins, resulting in a dramatic beating at the gas pump. No one ever said fun was free.

As for the ML’s other on-road dynamics there’s considerably less to get excited about. The vehicle handles well enough but it doesn’t really seem to involve the driver that much. Even in sport mode it feels distant and somewhat reserved.

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 29One annoying aspect about how this vehicle carries itself is the throttle. Sure, like a grizzled wizard it summons the engine’s fury but it’s simply too binary in its operation; it’s either on or off. The tip-in is all wrong, which makes it somewhat difficult to drive smoothly at low speeds, multiplying the annoyance factor. Gently roll on the accelerator and nothing happens, then, a second or so later there’s a giant surge of acceleration, like, way more than you intended.

This behavior makes you look like a jackass, especially if you storm past the local Dairy Queen overflowing with children and their scornful parents that are more than willing to report a reckless driver. (That never happened, we swear).

OFF ROAD

 

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 35

Perhaps the ML550’s on-road deficiencies are because this SUV is designed to tackle the trail. Like a leather-lined Jeep Wrangler our tester was built for getting dirty, plus its sparkly “Dakota Brown Metallic” paint (an additional $720) probably does a pretty good job hiding mud spatters. It was equipped with a fully adjustable air suspension, a hill descent system that helps prevent the vehicle from speeding out of control as it goes down an incline, driver selectable modes for different conditions like snow, severe off roading and even a setting for towing, plus there’s a dedicated low-range for when things get serious.
 
But let’s be real. The average ML550 is probably going to spend 99.8 percent of its life on pavement; the remaining two-tenths of one percent can be attributed to driving on grass while searching for a parking place at a Yanni concert. Capable or not it’s highly unlikely owners are going to take this rig off the paved-path. It’s simply too nice to play rough; nobody’s going to participate in a Warrior Dash wearing a tuxedo.

THE VERDICT

 

2013 Mercedes Benz ML 550 24

If you want a luxurious utility and can afford the pricey “Designo” package an ML-550 is definitely worth considering. This upscale option transforms an otherwise nice vehicle into something rivaling the Palace of Versailles.

But if you’re interested in an entertaining on-road experience you may want to check out a competing German utility vehicle: the Porsche Cayenne. It delivers a much more engaging experience.

Sure, the Pope may approve of Mercedes’ M-Class but don’t forget, he’s not the one in the driver’s seat.

LOVE IT
  • Responsive seven-speed transmission
  • Powerful, smooth twin-turbo V8
  • Gorgeous Designo interior
  • Spacious Cargo Area
LEAVE IT
  • $81,000 reasons to consider something else
  • Wonky throttle calibration
  • Not that great to drive