Motoring: Wide of the Merc

The verdict: Other road-users hate the Mercedes ML-320 - they're probably right, says Michael Booth. Photographs by Teena Taylor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As I have written before, people turn against

you when you drive a Mercedes. And with the

ML-320 that animosity has reached new levels.

I have never driven a car as hated by other road users ("My sister's car is better than that," sneered a drunk in Brixton), and I have several theories why this should be so. Firstly, a Mercedes brings lots of baggage - everything from envy, to perceptions of Mercedes owners as unlikeable snobs to, if you're being really paranoid, the faint shadow of the Third Reich. Secondly, the M-Class is a monster. Not quite as monumental as a Range Rover, but altogether more showy - its grille has the biggest three-pointed star I've ever seen. It screams its price tag of pounds 35,000 to all who want to hear, and to many who do not.

My third theory is that a sizeable number of people know that the M-Class is an ugly fraud, masquerading as a go-anywhere off-roader despite being not very good on the brown stuff. Realising what anyone who has negotiated Wandsworth Common on a Saturday morning could have told them years ago (that off-roaders spend most of their time roaming the cities like domesticated elephants in the middle of Asian traffic jams), Mercedes have designed the M-Class to be driven on Tarmac first and off-road second. As a result, Land Rover's Discovery, the Range Rover, and Toyota's Land Cruiser are all better when the going gets muddy, but the M-Class (effectively an E-Class in big boots) is more comfortable under normal road conditions.

That's fine and dandy - except that, compared to just about any mid-range family saloon, the four wheel drive M-Class is an underpowered barge. So why would anyone buy it, other than snobbery?

Beats me. The M-Class (built in Alabama) does not even boast the usual Mercedes quality of finish. The interior is swathed in cheap plastic and carpeting, and Luddites would feel perfectly at home in the gadget-free basic model - electrically adjustable seats, leather trim and a third row of seats are all expensive extras (on comparable Discoveries they aren't). From the driver's seat you can't see the front of the car while the rear door holds a huge spare wheel (very heavy to move when you need to gain access to the rear) which makes parking something to avoid at all costs.

The V6 engine groans like a cow in labour as it climbs through the gears (admittedly the five speed automatic gearbox is nice and smooth) and revs harshly at the top end. The ML-320 cries out for the V8 engine that arrives later this year, but if it is any thirstier than the 18.3mpg V6, owners will need a private oil well (a sure sign of an American-built car for an American market). Anyway, its storm-tossed handling hardly encourages swift manoeuvring as, rather like an inert jelly, once an M-Class suspension starts to wobble, the tremors take ages to subside.

Finally, though it's hardly the ML-320's fault, it produced one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. A neighbour asked for my verdict: delighted as always to spout an opinion, I gave a lengthy discourse on the points outlined above. "Oh dear," said my neighbour, "I ordered one last week"

James Dixon, 50, retired chartered accountant, from Putney, London. Currently drives a Rover 400 Touring

"This is far too expensive to be a consideration for me but it can accommodate my bicycle, which is very important. I do find these four wheel drives a tad anti-social in town. They take up an awful lot of space and guzzle gas - there's a high poseur element. I'm retired and do a lot of voluntary work so I don't think it would be all that appropriate. The handling has the potential to be a little top heavy, to lurch sideways unexpectedly, and I'm not impressed with the door "clunk." As an accountant I would worry about buying German as I expect exchange rates to deteriorate post-Euro, so parts prices will probably go up."

Justine Balser, 27, software developer from central London. Currently drives a Vauxhall Chevette.

Lovan Pushparatnam, 27, telecom engineer from Ealing, London. Currently drives a VW Golf

Justine: "I have absolutely no need for a four wheel drive in my life, but it's very responsive, very comfortable. But you've got to remember, I normally drive a Chevette! I feel okay with the size of this even though I can't see the bonnet properly."

Lovan: "It's quite noisy and accelerates well from the lights, but to be honest it's not as plush as other Mercedes I've seen. It looks cheap, as if it's aiming for Range Rover. But if it's targeting the Discovery it's too expensive. The name will probably appeal to some people though."

Kevin O'Reilly, 29, sports PR from Wimbledon, London. Currently drives an Audi A3

"Normally I don't like automatics but this is practical and it'd be great for carting sports kit around. The seat is very comfortable but I'm not too keen on the visibility out of the back, especially with the spare tyre on the back door: it's hard to judge where the car ends. The steering is very light, which helps make it feel a lot smaller when you're driving it than it actually is. It would be great for a mother and kids. British manufacturers still do wood trim much better than this. If you took the badges off you couldn't tell it was a Mercedes, which I think is a serious problem, and ultimately I don't think I'd have it for city driving."

Sarah Pears, 35, lecturer, and her partner Jeremy Melling, 35, jeweller, from Bloomsbury, London. Currently car-less

Jeremy: "I know that people feel safe in these large four- wheel drives but it's often at other people's risk - you sometimes can't see people lower than you, especially cyclists. And Mercedes drivers have the worst attitude. It's a bit tacky inside, too. The wood definitely looks plastic, and the electric seat adjuster button came off in my hand."

Sarah: "I love sitting this high up. I can see why people like it so much. But it's pretty ugly from the outside and it feels claustrophobic inside: you couldn't take people on long journeys in it. I reckon it's worth around pounds 25,000, not pounds 35,000."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.