Silvio Calabi: Mercedes-Benz ML250 raises the diesel 4×4 stakes
Eight degrees below zero this morning and the ML250 out in the driveway started right up, with just a bit of creaking and groaning. Actually, that was me. I mention this just in case anyone still thinks diesels — modern clean diesels, that is, like Mercedes-Benz BlueTECs, and re-formulated diesel fuel — aren’t suitable for cold weather. Furthermore, any diesel clatter is audible only outside the vehicle and at low RPM; underway, at any speed, the ML250 BlueTEC 4Matic is luxuriously quiet.
It’s also surprisingly quick, considering that the engine is only a 125-cubic-inch (2.1 liters) four-cylinder producing a measly 200 horsepower. But thanks to the higher compression of diesel engines and turbocharging, this motor also churns out 369 pounds-feet of torque — almost the same output as last year’s heavier, thirstier six-cylinder diesel, which it replaces, and more torque than comes from the gasoline V-6 in the much more expensive ML400. So, small though it is, the new 2.1 BlueTEC accelerates this two-and-a-half-ton, five-passenger 4×4 to 60 mph pretty smartly, and then it’ll hold a smooth and silent 80 mph at just 2,200 RPM.
Furthermore, if we back the ML250 down to 65 mph, we can expect up to 29 highway mpg and a range of something like 600 miles on a tank of fuel. (In our household, that’s four potty stops.) The ML250 even has a tow rating of 6,600 pounds.
In fact, if you believe that a big SUV ought to be a family-oriented, all-weather beast of burden (as opposed to a tarmac-shredding autobahn-stormer), this powertrain — the “little” diesel and the flawless seven-speed automatic transmission — is just about perfect for the ML. (If you want the other kind of SUV, try the 550HP ML63 AMG. Be prepared for sticker shock.)
For a workhorse, our ML250 is a pleasure to drive and, as equipped, quite plush. Its starting price of $49,800 covers all the important features that make an ML250 worth owning, from its hewn-from-granite structure and that task-appropriate diesel motor to 4Matic four-wheel drive, the adaptive Agility Control suspension, basic cruise control and extensive safety systems, including emergency braking and collision-prevention assistance. However, it’s probably the nearly 20 grand in added options that would make this a “true” Mercedes-Benz to many buyers — like the $4,030 Premium Package that dresses up the ML250 with things like seat memory, voice control, satnav, extra telematics and so on. (We’re not used to European Mercedes taxicabs with manual windows, so we believe all Mercs must be frippery-laden luxury cars.) I can also live without the self-leveling Airmatic suspension, the lane-keeping nanny, the heated rear seats and the extra trim bits. By leaving off about half the options, I’d keep the price below 60 grand. You, on the other hand, might dig even deeper into the toy chest and drive home an ML250 costing 75K.
As with any high-end vehicle, there’s a learning curve. The shift lever is a stalk on the right side of the steering wheel. Nudge it up for Reverse, down for Drive, and push it in for Park. Fine, except that in all this snow I sometimes hit the transmission when I meant to click on the windshield wipers. (The wipers? They’re controlled by a fussy multi-function stalk on the left side of the wheel — and where the shift lever ought to be, between the front seats, you’ll find the COMAND — Cockpit Management & Data system — knob.) A driver who recalls the traditional P-R-N-D-L automatic-transmission pattern of the old-school Detroit sedan will take to this easily — except that pulling down the Merc’s shift lever one click engages Drive, not Reverse. Be careful.
Whether chewing through fresh snow or sailing down the interstate, the ML250 makes light of every task. And in town, despite its bulk, the ML250 is a breeze to dock, either manually — relying on the 360-degree cameras and the front and rear oops! sensors — or automatically, with the optional Parktronic active parking assist, which asks the captain to do nothing more than select Reverse or Drive as instructed. However you decide to equip it, the ML250 is a boat. A very nice boat.
- Torquey but fuel-sipping diesel
- Semi-reasonable price/value
- Feels invincible
- Shift lever
- Eco-Mode default on startup
- Engine stop-start
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.