Mercedes-Benz has given its luxury off-roader a facelift for the start of the Lunar New Year, having nipped and tucked a few essential features in a bid to tempt seasonal buyers. The 2009 ML350 is sharper on the outside, with fresh styling touches giving Mercedes' urban SUV a more distinctive character over the softer-looking outgoing model.
The new generation M-Class presents a more muscular look with new alloys and distinctive reshaped wings with integrated mudguards. The ML350 receives a newly tailored bumper, re-contoured bi-xenon headlamps and a more dominant chrome-trimmed radiator grille.
The rear of the vehicle similarly features a new-look bumper with integrated reflectors, LED tail lights that help to emphasise the vehicle's width, and dual-flow exhausts that hint at the sporty nature of this heavyweight (2,135kg) SUV.
While it's a smart looking package on the outside Mercedes says it has focused just as much of its effort on fine-tuning the interior and chassis to keep up to date with its X5 rival.
Mercedes has noticeably improved the quality of the materials used in the cabin compared to the outgoing model, with a new two-tone colour scheme lending the cabin a fresher feel.
Leather now adorns the door linings as well as the new sports front seats, while a new four-spoke multifunctional steering wheel - trimmed in leather and highlighted with chrome - lets the driver operate the in-car entertainment system or call up information to the instrument display.
Other integrated features include a hands-free system based on Bluetooth technology, and an aux-in connection for mobile audio devices and iPods, while a Harman Kardon sound system delivers sharp sound through 11-channel amplifiers around the cabin.
A state-of-the-art automatic climate control completes the standard options list, helping to regulate the airflow and cabin temperature according to the angle of the sun's rays. The system can also detect poor outside air quality and close ventilation flaps when necessary. On the road the ML350 is a similar drive to the outgoing SUV.
For a top-heavy, 2-tonne-plus vehicle, the chassis does well to counter body-roll, while Mercedes' permanent all-wheel-drive '4matic' system is partnered by the ESP/4ETS electronic dynamic handling control system to manage a composed delivery of the 272 brake horsepower on tap.
The handling control system is a reassuring presence, intervening in potentially critical situations by selectively braking individual wheels to stabilise the vehicle. It is especially noticeable during hard cornering, where it helps the car maintain an optimal level.
The 4matic system also features an anti-lock-braking system, acceleration skid control and active yaw control to enhance traction across different surface conditions should you be tempted to take it off-road.
On paper at least, the ML350's no shirker in the mud with an integrated transmission system including downhill speed regulation, which helps maintain a set downhill speed to avoid running out of control in wet conditions. The ESP also comes with hill start assist if you are starting with an upward incline. Step on the accelerator and the brakes are released with a slight delay to prevent the SUV from rolling back unintentionally.
Back on tarmac and the ML350's pickup is swift - rather than stately as you might expect from such a large car - and there were no perceptible power dips. The engine has enough low-down grunt to keep things moving even on steeper inclines.
The seven-speed automatic transmission is perky with narrow ratios and fast-reacting paddles, making it easy to get up and down through the gears. While it's no sports car, the ML350's 0-100 km/h time of 8.4 seconds underlines the car's pace and agility. In fact, the SUV is equally at home at dealing with tight bends on the road to Shek O as cruising on the highway out to Chai Wan.
In the safety stakes the Mercedes is suitably well-protected. Front, side and window airbags come as standard and in the event of a severe side-on collision, the window bags unfold like an inflatable curtain between the A and C-pillars, offering extra protection for passengers both in the front and rear. In the event of a head-on collision, the front airbags are deployed in two stages, depending on the severity of the impact.
Mercedes' newly-developed crash-responsive 'Neck-pro' head restraint system is also an option for the ML350. Designed to reduce the risk of whiplash injuries for front passengers, the system is fully integrated into the front head restraints and improves support for the head in the event of a rear-end collision. If the sensors register a crash, the head restraints are pushed forwards and upwards to protect your head.
The ML350 is a comfortable drive, handles well and is safe as houses - so, what's the downside?
Despite the fact Mercedes says fuel consumption has been reduced by up to 0.4 litres per 100km, the ML350 is unlikely to be particularly to run. What's more, the 350 turns out some pretty hefty emissions figures - especially unwelcome when you consider it's essentially just a five-seater.
AT A GLANCE: Mercedes ML350
What drives it? A 272bhp 3498cc V6 linked to a 7G-tronic gearbox.
How fast is it? The ML350 makes 0-100km/h in 8.4 seconds, with a top speed of 225km/h.
How safe is it? Anti-lock braking system (ABS) and acceleration skid control (ASR) are integrated into Mercedes ESP/4ETS set-up. Front, side and window air bags and crash-responsive head restraints cushion you during an impact while active bi-xenon head lamps help you see around corners.
How thirsty is it? Mercedes says the ML350 drinks 11.2-11.8 litres per 100km (combined).
Hong Kong friendly? The ML350 blows a heavyweight 266-281 grams of CO2 per km.
Availability: HK$648,000 from Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong, Tel: 2594 8800.