A Better Benz

Mountain Life: A Better Benz

It's hard being humbled. Just ask Mercedes-Benz. Eight years ago, the launch of its ML series represented the advent of the luxury SUV era. At the time, it seemed the auto-maker could do no wrong. But then the ML did go wrong.

The idea of an SUV that drove like a car may have been ahead of its time, but shabby interiors and shoddy mechanicals didn't help. No surprise, then, that for its 2006 redesign, the Germans felt they had something big to prove.

At the moment, I'm trying to knock the ML500 off the road. I've spent three days touring New York's state parks, getting to know the second-generation machine. It's brittle-cold outside, and I've found a steep, slush-coated offramp in deserted Harriman State Park. I drive down it fast, goose the gas and twist the wheel, trying to put the ML into a skid. But its four-wheel traction-control system will have none of it. It cuts the acceleration and independently brakes the back right wheel. No go on that slide.

Yeah, the safety stuff is here, right down to state-of-the-art air bags. But most important, the company has dumped the body-on-ladder frame (often used on trucks) for a better-handling unibody construction. The ML has also taken on a wider, more stable stance. The bloated minivan lines have been streamlined into a sportier contour that's recognizably Mercedes (though it still doesn't qualify as aggressive). And both versions (the ML350 has a smaller engine) are available with 19-inch wheels.

My solo four-day trip through the Adirondacks and the Catskills has been comfortable, even after 500 miles. There's more head- and legroom than the old version offered, and everything inside is simply better designed with better materials. With the back seats folded down, there's 8.8 feet of cargo space, which easily fits all the gear I thought I'd want. (Winter camping? Not with so many cheap motels at hand.)

The ML500, which starts around $50,000, has a 5-liter V-8 engine, with 302 hp and 339 ft-lb of torque—plenty of power. The seven-speed automatic transmission is excellent, both for gas efficiency and for finding the right gear on big hills (no more caught-between-gears lurching). The less powerful 350 ($40,000 and up) has a 3.5-liter V-6, with 268 hp and a relatively anemic 258 ft-lb of torque. The smaller engine doesn't save that much gas, so the go-go V-8 is the better pick.

I try the U-turn once more, but the ML stays stubbornly on the road. OK, fine. I straighten the wheel and point it toward Route 17. After days of quiet nordic skiing through the woods on ungroomed trails and a load of diner food, it's time to head home. Soon I'm close to New York City. But I slow down and turn around. Can't resist giving that traction control one more chance to show its stuff.