Jellinek also relentlessly prodded Daimler's chief engineer, Wilhelm Maybach, for more speed and power. In 1901, the Mercedes was the most powerful and sophisticated horse-less carriage to date at Nice's late-winter speed week. Riding on a 91.6-inch wheelbase, powered by a 6.0-liter, twin-cam, 35-hp, four-cylinder engine, and driven by Wilhelm Werner, that car beat all comers in a 244-mile Nice-Salon-Nice road race. Its 53-mph top speed was bettered only by steam cars. Werner also won the La Turbie hill-climb, a winding 10.6-mile ascent from the Basse Corniche up the foothills overlooking Monaco.
With a footprint precisely the size of a Porsche Cayenne, the new ML350 is a horse too grand for the La Turbie course, so we nodded our respects to the historic hill and searched for open road. Day one was a quick jaunt up the Maritime Alps foothills to the Chteau de Berne winery, where off-pavement opportunities awaited, followed by evening's rest at the swank Terre Blanche Four Seasons resort near Fayence. On the second day, we shifted attention to the ML500 for a mix of mountain-pass sprints and coast crawls from Cannes to Nice. Snow, a rarity in Provence, added sparkle to the snapshots and spice to our high-altitude slip-and-slide investigation.
The first good news is that the 3.5-liter V-6 invigorates the ML350 just as effectively as it resuscitates the SLK. The 258-lb-ft torque curve peaks early at 2400 rpm and maintains that maximum all the way to 5000 rpm. With 268 hp on tap and a gear for every occasion, value shoppers won't be disappointed with the available thrust. Mercedes touts a 0-to-60-mph claim of 8.2 seconds. Electronic throttle and transmission controls gloss over every niggle and nub in the power delivery.
Drawing attention to this newfound powertrain poise, the shift lever for all M-classes has left the center console to live on the steering column. That not only clears ample space for two large cup holders (and for the BMW iDrive-style controller that will be phased in later), but it also changes gearshifting to button pushing. Similar to the BMW 7-series arrangement, there's a stubby stalk to the right of the steering wheel. After starting the engine, you press down for drive, up for reverse, and in for park. Traditionalists will inevitably grumble, but we found it handy.
Switches on the back side of the upper steering-wheel spokes offer some gear control to those interested in keeping the tach needle in the sweetest part of the dial. Unfortunately, this electronic manu-matic erroneously be-lieves it's smarter than the driver. Upshifts, want them or not, are automatic at the 6400-rpm redline. According to Weber, the theory is that no driver should be left hanging during a passing maneuver, needing an upshift to muster more speed. Our contention is that any driver resourceful enough to choose the manual mode should be able to punch the button on cue.
Properly shifted, the ML350 tops out at 140 mph on a stretch of autoroute. Cabin noise is thoroughly subdued. Ride quality is also soothing, but there's a price for that. Back on local roads, the body bobs and weaves like a wobbly bar stool before the dampers engage to restrain pitch-and-roll motion. The steering is slow and slightly numb to the touch, discouraging maneuvers that might upset a copacetic cruise. The ML350's floaty feeling should be a hit with customers moving up from Buicks, but everyone else should exercise this escape clause: add the optional Airmatic suspension package that includes speed-sensitive power steering, air springs, and three-way adjustable dampers.