As if to make up for its listless driving dynamics, the ML350 strives to please with a richly trimmed interior, comfortable and supportive seats, and ample elbow room for five adults. Cloth seats, aluminum accent panels, and a central Comand screen are standard; leather and vinyl upholstery and bird's-eye maple accents are optional. Every surface is polished or padded to a fare-thee-well, and there isn't a fit or finish flaw in sight. Rear seats bow out of the way with a 40/60 split to provide 72 cubic feet of cargo space. The only notable aggravation is a view of the outside world obstructed by massive A- and C-pillars.
For the off-road course winding through olive trees and grape arbors at the 275-year-old Chteau de Berne vineyard, we switched to an ML350 equipped with a package Mercedes calls Off-Road Pro. The hardware consists of a two-speed transfer case, an air suspension providing five ride heights, electronic controls to aid climbing and descending, two locking differentials, and a video screen indicating which way the front tires are pointing. It's as close as any luxury SUV gets to full Caterpillar capability. An ML350 so equipped clawed up wet-clay grades, across cratered landscape, and through a deep stream without hesitating. Expect to pay an extra $3500 for this off-road gear when it's added to the 2007 model year options list.
Switching to the ML500 for the second day of our Provence passage, we found something more satisfying than the 302 hp generated by the flagship's V-8: a hearty appetite for hammer-down driving. This M-class had the aforementioned Airmatic package, another $3500 option, which neatly eradicates most of the dynamic flaws noted in the less well-endowed ML350. While the steering is still slow, the extra frontal weight adds heft to your link with the road. Set to sport mode, the electronically adjustable dampers give the suspension athletic tension. The active-assisted brake pedal is still mushy, but there isn't a hint of dive during deceleration or squat exiting a bend. Compared with a BMW X5 4.4i, the ML500 has a bit more torque pulling slightly less weight, lending credibility to the factory's sub-seven-second 0-to-60-mph claim. In short, this is the Mercedes-Benz SUV of the enthusiast's dreams.
Neither black ice nor wet pavement im-peded us from our appointed rounds up and over the Tanneron Mountains. When the steering goes light, that's the driver's clue that the 255/55VR-18 front Michelins are sliding. Unperturbed, the ML500 holds the line with sincere confidence. Mid-corner bumps and last-ditch steering corrections are taken in stride. While American M-classes will be downgraded to H-rated rubber worth only 130 mph, Mercedes U.S. product manager Ron Mueller promises that the Airmatic suspension settings we experienced in Provence are exactly what customers who invest the extra money in that optional package will receive.
The ML500's sticker will start just under $50,000 and climb rapidly. The options list goes on and on, including DVD navigation, directional bi-xenon headlamps, Sirius satellite radio, a Harman Kardon audio system, a rear-seat kiddie screen, an iPod interface kit, rear side air bags (supplementing the six standard inflatable restraints), and park-by-ear sensors. An AMG Sports package is an interim place holder for the inevitable power upload.
Finally, Mercedes has the wherewithal to wage formidable SUV war from $40,000 to who knows how much. Luckily for us, the new M-class is as good as its predecessor was average.
Price: $50,000 (ML500 base, est.)
Engine: 5.0L SOHC V-8, 302 hp