Relative to the Lexus and Infiniti, the Mercedes drives like the older design it is. Over most road surfaces, the ML exhibits that reassuringly substantial Mercedes feel, but subjects occupants to a fairly stiff, jouncy ride that's uncharacteristic of other Mercedes models and luxury vehicles in general. Steering remains enigmatic, lacking feedback and the ability to recenter itself after a turn. Driver and passengers ride high in the saddle, so outward visibility is better than most.

Compared with the other SUVs in this test, the M-Class carries many hundreds more pounds of road-hugging weight, which must be accelerated and decelerated to keep up with the ebb and flow of traffic. This has a negative impact on fuel economy (we averaged 14-15 mpg). Happily, the ML350's brakes are confidence-building, as you'd expect of a German-branded vehicle, hauling the SUV down from speed with ease. And though the meaty 275/55R17 Dunlop SP Sport 5000 tires on our Inspiration Edition model exhibited an annoying tendency to follow pavement grooves, they acquitted themselves well at the track, keeping the nearly 5000-pound ML350 from falling to the back of the pack during skidpad and slalom testing.

More Saint Bernard than Greyhound, the ML's long suit is its standard four-wheel drive and various electronic traction aids. Off-pavement and on low-traction paved surfaces, the ML350 is in its element--its front, center, and rear differentials, four-wheel traction control, and low-range downhill traction control work in concert with the anti-lock brake system to maintain momentum even if only one wheel has bite.