Watching a new ML320 teeter between two slippery mounds of red Alabama clay, dragging itself resolutely over the obstacles with any wheels--or wheel--that could find a scrap of traction, made it clear that we were observing an advance in the state of the art of sport-utility drive systems.
In fact, that first demonstration, held for worldwide members of the motoring press near the new Mercedes factory in Alabama, suggested that this fresh-sheet-of-paper SUV might just be the best in the business. And subsequent seat time has done little to dispel that notion.
Then again, best is a tricky word in the automotive lexicon. Comparative ratings of sport-utilities--or any other vehicles--are defined by their design and execution in terms of the perceived wants and needs of a particular market segment. But market segments don't buy vehicles. People do. And one buyer's best may have no appeal at all for the next.
Nevertheless, it seems to us that the new Mercedes M-Class makes a pretty good case for most sophisticated in the increasingly sophisticated world of sport-utilities, be they small, mid-size or full-size brute utes.
On the highway, the ML320 combines smooth ride quality with positive handling and surprisingly brisk acceleration for a vehicle that weighs more than two tons: 0-to-60 mph in 9 seconds.
On dirt or any slippery surface, its innovative full-time four-wheel-drive system makes the most of whatever traction is available, even if three of its four wheels can't get a grip.