The ML500 Sport's beefed-up design attracts admiring glances. And it's a powerful new contender in the SUV market, says David Wilkins

Price: £49,925
5.0 litre petrol
Performance: Top speed 146mph, 0-62mph in 6.9 secs
CO2: 319g/km
Worth considering: BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover Sport

In the old days, Mercedes-Benz cars only really needed to appeal to two sorts of people; German taxi drivers and businessmen. That meant that Mercedes' magnificent engineering was usually clothed in bodywork which, if not actually dull, was certainly understated.

But there are increasing numbers of buyers who want to enjoy the advantages of these German cars while making a bit of a statement at the same time, so a whole industry has grown up supplying extra bits that allow Merc owners to express their personalities. You know the sort of thing; wide alloy wheels with enormous tyres, super-dark tinted glass, flared wheel arches, huge bumpers, bold radiator grilles with exaggerated detailing, extra chrome trim, and suspension raised or lowered according to taste.

There is a wonderful description for cars modified with these items; they are, as the name of one company specialising in such vehicles has it, Rude Mercs. While I don't entirely share the sniffy attitudes of some traditionalists to this sort of thing, I generally prefer Mercs in their unadorned state. That's why I had a bit of a shock when our giant ML500 Sport test car turned up.

There's only one way to put this; if its new top-of-the-range SUV is anything to go by, Mercedes has decided to cut out the middleman and start supplying rude Mercs, or at least some fairly cheeky ones, direct from the factory. But the company clearly knows what the customers want because the ML500 attracted admiring glances in the course of our test.

And my reservations about its looks apart, I found the ML500 to be pretty terrific too. This was no surprise, as our test car shared two important elements with the CLS350 that so impressed The Verdict a few months ago; Mercedes' seven-speed automatic transmission and the Airmatic suspension system, a £1,265 option. Instead of the V6 that powered our CLS, the ML500 has a strong, smooth 5.0 litre V8 that provides more than enough extra heft to offset its additional bulk and four-wheel drive transmission.

That means that the occupants of the ML500 travel in quiet comfort. The fact that it is a large, heavy, high-sided vehicle has remarkably little impact on ride, handling or performance, although the brake pedal has a rather long travel. Fuel bills for the huge petrol engine are the only real drawback. Lexus already has a hybrid version of its SUV on the market; it's not surprising that the German manufacturers are getting worried about the lead that the Japanese have built up in this technology.

Ben Herring, 33, Accountant from Leamington Spa

There's no mistaking the ML500's arrival - jet black, windows to match, huge wheels and contrasting aluminium trim mean it's hard to miss. All rather "footballer's wives", but the design is a vast improvement on its boxy predecessor. Build quality and finish is as expected (except for a plastic front grille), with a well-finished interior and load space. The driving position is good, although space for your left leg is limited, and it's too easy to mistake the cruise-control stalk for the indicator stalk. Town driving is fine, but the fun starts when you floor the throttle and wake up the 5-litre V8 - acceleration is immediate and is accompanied by a wonderful V8 growl.

John Price, 36, Software developer from Nuneaton

I loved the engine noise when accelerating hard, which disappears to non-existent while cruising. The gearbox was very smooth, with the changes being all but unnoticeable. I was not too keen on the manual gear override paddles, though - their position on the back of the steering wheel make them very easy to operate by accident. They also felt very cheap and plastic, in contrast to the rest of the car which is very solid. Moving the gear shift to the steering column to free up space in the centre console is a good idea, but then that space seemed wasted with just two drink holders and a flat surface from which things can slide through gaps on to the floor.

Paul Crowe, 40, Consultant radiologist from Birmingham

Overall, I'm very impressed by it as a 4x4 compared with others I've tried, especially the ride - perhaps that's down to the air suspension. If so, then it's well worth having. The engine's lively. It's got plenty of power, but then it should have with five litres. The automatic gearbox is excellent and the column shift set-up is very good so there would be no real need to use the buttons on the steering wheel to shift manually. Mercedes interiors have been disappointing lately but this one is better than others I've seen. The aluminium is nice but some of the plastics probably aren't as good as they should be on a 50 grand car - the grille looks a bit cheap.

THE VERDICT: If you would like to take part, e-mail or write to: The Verdict, Features Department, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.

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