A whale of a wagon
If you, like me, think the Mercedes-Benz ML500 is expensive, consider this; the R742 000 4x4 wagon is considerably cheaper than whale puke.
Ambergris—that dull, grey, slimy stuff excreted by the sperm whale’s digestive system and vomited into the ocean every now and then—is snapped up by perfume makers at a minimum of $10 000 per kilogram, which makes the 2,2-ton Merc seem an absolute bargain at around $25 per kilogram.
Why am I boring you with all this? Because I visited the ruins of the old Durban whaling station in the ML, where I photographed the car and learnt about ambergris.
There are, of course, other links between the whale and the big German wagon.
Commercial whaling and petrol-burning 4x4 wagons with 380 hungry horses crammed under their bonnets and lots of pollution coming out the other end are about as politically incorrect as you can get.
And, of course, the Mercedes-Benz ML is a whale of a wagon on the road ...
The ML series Mercedes-Benz 4x4s underwent a facelift late last year, but the essence of the vehicle is much the same as that of its predecessor that arrived in ‘05.
Buyers with their feet firmly on the ground can still choose between the 165kW / 510Nm three-litre V6 diesel engine of the ML320 or the ML500’s 5,5 litre petrol V8 that kicks your backside with 285kW of power and 530Nm of torque.
High flyers with the extra money and attitude can splash out on the ML63 (R1 105 000) with its 375kW / 630Nm 6,2-litre V8 that’ll get you up to 100km/h in five seconds, which is 0,8 seconds quicker than the ML500 and 3,6 seconds better than the diesel version that sells for R640 000.
The top speeds of the two petrol V8 versions are electronically governed to 250km/h, while the oil-burning six is claimed to be good for 215km/h. For those who remember when 100 mph was considered a very good top speed for a performance car, that’s 156 miles per hour for the two quicker versions, and 135 for the “slow” diesel 4x4 wagon.
The ML500’s V8 engine really is a gorgeously smooth and lively unit, and the 7G-Tronic seven speed automatic gearbox that’s bolted to the back of it is just as good.
Twin paddles on the left and right of the steering wheel allow the driver to shift ratios at will and the response is very brisk. The gear selection lever however didn’t enthral me—a steering column-mounted stalk, it proved all too easy to accidentally knock the transmission into neutral while on the move.
For its size the Mercedes is a good handler, with a host of electronic wizards permanently on watch to ensure the trip is safe as well as quick. These include electronically adjustable suspension with comfort and sport settings, crash responsive seat belts and headrests, about a million airbags, and, of course, the usual intelligent traction and stability programs that work in conjunction with all those sensors in the drive train to minimise loss of control by even the most ham-handed of drivers during acceleration, braking or cornering.
There’s also hill-descent control to prevent the car running away on steep off-road downhills, and hill start assist to stop the car running backwards when pulling off on an uphill.
The ML500 would probably make a fairly competent off-roader if you were rich and stupid enough to treat it as you would a Toyota Land Cruiser in the bundu.
Ground clearance is reasonably good, and the front and rear overhangs are acceptable for a car of this type, but the 19-inch rims with their low profile 255/50R19 rubber would have to give way for something a bit more suitable.
The ML has no diff-locks or low-range transmission, but a technical offroad package is available to remedy this if you have another R16 800 to add to the price of the car.
Keeping it on the road
I’d personally rather buy a second-hand 4x4 double-cab bakkie for playing in the bush, and keep the Mercedes as it is for road use. My trip to the old whaling station involved nothing more tasking than a moderately bad two kilometre or so of dirt road with some mud puddles on the way, and that’s about as far as I’d like to venture off-road with such a gorgeous, extravagant beast.
Although the ML500 comes with a pretty well stocked toy box, there are a number of costly options available that can send the price through the ceiling.
Active Bi-Xenon headlights will set you back almost R13 000, while the Comand voice activation package (including satellite navigation) will lighten your wallet by R21 000. Add Parktronic (R6 500), a rear-seat entertainment system (R29 900) and an optional external spare-wheel carrier (R12 600) and you’ll find yourself heading back to the bank with your cap in your hand rather than on your head.
For me, the ML500 poses a bit of a conundrum; it’s an expensive, complicated solution to a non-existent problem. Still, that’s probably just me, because I feel the same about all the other highly powered 4x4 wagons that I see cruising the streets of Durban on their ultra low-profile tyres every day.
Their tyres and price alone make them unsuitable for any sort of off road use as far as I’m concerned, and their enormous, high-riding bodies make them much less fun than they could be on the tar. Still, for those who want the image and can afford it, the Mercedes ML500 and its siblings slot in right at the front of the queue in terms of desirability.