ROAD TEST: Mercedes-Benz ML350 4Matic
Once niceties like eating have been dispensed with, and a bunch of guys settle around a fire for an evening of shooting the breeze, it’s only a matter of time before the talk turns to all things motorised.
There are those who prefer hardcore mountain trails, guys who still want to do snow passes, double-cab owners destined for long overlanding trips – and then there are the majority, who rarely do more than the odd bush trail, gravel road or an occasional trip to one of our many game reserves and national parks.
Even though they may be behind the wheel of a hardcore 4x4, odds are you’ll never meet them on the slopes of Baboons Pass or attempting some impossible obstacle at a competition. Pretty much like the guys who buy mega-fast cars but wouldn’t know oversteer from understeer and often end up posing more than driving.
Years ago there was a television commercial for Opel which had a youngster telling his dad all the things his mates were saying about their fathers’ cars. When the father asked what his boy had said, his answer was: “Nothing. I just smiled.”
This is more than likely the response you’ll get late at night, after the guys have told their “war” stories, from someone who climbs behind the wheel of the Mercedes-Benz ML350 4Matic.
You see, he doesn’t have to explain anything to anyone. He knows what the vehicle is capable of, has no intention of ever testing the breakover angle and couldn’t be bothered with approach and departure angles.
He has 225kW and 370Nm of torque in the V6 strapped under the hood, consumption averaging 9l/100km, and gets his family to where they want to be with minimum fuss and maximum comfort.
CAPABLE IN THE ROUGH
And when he has to do a bit of the rough stuff, the off-road setting will get a few tongues wagging. Sure, there’s no comparison in ability to a Land Cruiser, Patrol or Defender, but that’s not why the ML350 is taking up space in the garage.
There are two off-road modes, which will pretty much cover all conditions an owner is likely to encounter. There’s enough underbody protection, a two-stage transfer case with reduction gear, an inter-axle differential lock and an enhanced Airmatic function that gives it a maximum ground clearance of 285mm. In that mode it has a fording depth of 600mm, not bad at all, but I wouldn’t test it regularly, since getting moisture on the Merc’s myriad electrics isn’t something you or your auto electrician want to think about.
I took it out to play in the rain and mud with a few mates at a track just outside Randfontein and it went where most of the big rigs went. Okay, there was one steep incline that I knew would be an issue but I gave it a go anyway. I reached the top without too much fuss but couldn’t get over and managed to land on the chassis with all four wheels in the air.
The smile on the face of the driver recovering me was straight out of a toothpaste advertisement, and despite lots of ragging and chirping your average 4x4 enthusiast is fully aware of the car’s limitations.
And that’s why there will always be a market for a vehicle like the ML350; it’s not supposed to be doing rocky trails, but if you find yourself in a tight spot, it has enough gadgets to get you out of it, and your ride is up there with the super-comfortable. But to be honest it much prefers the tar over dirt.
CABIN IS PURE MERC
It has everything you need to keep you safely on the black stuff and once inside the cabin it’s pure Merc. There was no road noise to speak of, and with electronically adjustable seats I can’t imagine being uncomfortable on an extended trip.
That goes for the back passengers as well; there’s enough room for three big South African okes and a boot large enough to carry their kit as well. I gave it a bit of stick over some twisty bits and not once did it falter or feel like the tyres were protesting too much against the weight.
Upshifts and kickdowns were ludicrously smooth but that column-mounted gear selector needs a rethink – it just looks too much like an indicator stalk.
So, when the embers of the fire die down and the boys go to bed, don’t be surprised if dad tells his son: “Nothing my boy, I just smiled.” -Saturday Star