The four-wheel drive market may never be the same again now that the revolutionary new Mercedes-Benz ML320 wagon has arrived on the scene.
Designed from the ground up to meet today's expectations and requirements for recreational vehicles, the attractively-styled ML320 combines almost sedan car driving qualities and comfort with capable off-road performance, robust construction, high levels of safety, and a dazzling array of luxury and technology features.
With just one V6 automatic model of the M-Class currently available here (overseas buyers can choose a four cylinder model, and a V8 version is coming) buyers only have to select a colour and decide whether they want to specify a $6,000 "Luxury" pack.
Priced at $67,400, the ML320 comes with a long list of standard equipment. Major items include both front and side airbags for the driver and front passenger, airconditioning, anti-lock brakes, electronic traction control and stability control systems, cruise control with variable speed limiter function, power windows and mirrors, alloy road wheels, an electronic immobiliser, remote central locking, adjustable rear bench seat, roof rails, first aid kit and a cargo cover.
The "Luxury" pack adds leather upholstery, burred walnut wood trim, electrically adjustable front seats, a trip computer and an automatically dimming interior mirror.
Inside the ML320 there's good space for five people. Comfort rates better than average in the rear, with virtually no floor hump in the centre and head restraints for all three occupants.
Front leg and head room are good, but I found the seats lacked good lateral support. This lack of lateral support was more noticeable in the test car due to the naturally slippery nature of its optional leather trim.
The ML320 has good load space, with the option of folding one third or two thirds of the rear seat when longer items need to be carried.
On the road, the ML320's 3.2-litre V6 engine provides ample power for all conditions and it combines very well with the five speed adaptive automatic transmission for super-smooth operation.
The four-wheel disc brakes, with anti-locking equipment and electronic brake assist and proportioning, provide powerful effective braking.
As with all 4WDs, the ML320's higher centre of gravity (compared to a sedan) will cause some body roll on enthusiastic cornering, however the Electronic Stability Program keeps things well under control. ESP monitors steering movements, lateral acceleration and any rotation of the vehicle around its vertical axis, and then applies correction by way of braking or throttle control, to stabilise the vehicle. ESP complements and operates in conjunction with the ML 320's traction control system.
Off-roading in the ML320 couldn't be more simple. There are no extra levers to worry about, thanks to the permanent four-wheel drive system and the electronic traction control. The only option for drivers is to select low range via a simple push button on the dash, should extra power be needed in difficult conditions.
Our off-road driving showed that while the ML320 might lack the absolute go-anywhere ability of more agricultural-style 4WDs with more aggressive tread pattern tyres, it will prove more than capable for the vast majority of recreational 4WD users.
The only aspect that could perhaps be better, is the ramp-over angle (the ability of the middle of the vehicle to clear obstacles), however approach and departure angles are generous so there shouldn't be any problems with dragging the front or rear.
Which ever way you look at it, the new Mercedes-Benz ML320 is a mighty impressive newcomer to the ever growing ranks of 4WD wagons.
Good to drive and impressively quiet and comfortable to ride in, the ML320 combines levels of luxury, convenience and safety that are usually found in just a couple of 4WDs with price tags in excess of $100,000. At its launch pricing, the ML320 rates a veritable bargain.