Mercedes-Benz ML550
Automotive writers are seldom at a loss for creative quips or snarky asides. With that said, the most interesting thing in the ML's notebook was: "Well, it is better than the previous model." OK, so that wasn't the snarkiest comment, but it sums up the overall impression of the ML.

There's little to get excited about in this particular SUV. The driving experience could best be described as yawn-inducing. It's smooth and uneventful. Power is decent but not invigorating, the transmission operates without calling attention to itself and the buttons to shift manually are hidden behind the spokes of the steering wheel, with no outward indication of their location. Mercedes must feel that the type of person who changes their own gears probably won't be behind the wheel of an ML, but it looks good on the spec sheet.

The suspension has selectable comfort levels (like most vehicles in the class), but sport seems to fall short of most expectations and luxury is for putting rambunctious child passengers to sleep. This setting is so soft that, over extremely choppy freeway sections, it almost feels as if the front dampers have blown.

The exterior is equally anticlimactic. The steep, sloping hood, slab sides, smallish wheels, and proportions add up to something more closely resembling a mid-'80s micro-sport van rather than a modern SUV. One member of our team commented on the aggressive-looking running boards: while nice, they take up even more of the little ground clearance the ML has for off-roading.

Speaking of minivans, the interior appears to be lifted straight from a Chrysler in both material quality and design. The ergonomics are decent; drivers and passengers find themselves comfortable overall, but there's no feeling of sportiness or even luxury.

On the plus side, it is extremely quiet. Engine, road, and wind noise are virtually absent. It's quite possible that was Mercedes' goal. We wouldn't be surprised to find out that ML stands for mobile library.

Dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiasts can't get excited about the ML. Perhaps it's too far off our radar to appreciate a vehicle like this. It seems that maybe buyers of the ML get them simply to impress other people who have the same (low) level of car enthusiasm as themselves. The snarkiest comment is this: "Wanting one of these is as much a clichd soccer mom's fantasy as George Clooney."

Porsche Cayenne
If we were giving an award for sexiest-sounding SUV, it would go to the Cayenne, hands down. None of the others come close to the aural satisfaction generated by Porsche's V8. Arguably the first real European sports/luxury SUV, the Cayenne arrived with something to prove. We expected real grunt in a straight line, excellent brakes, and almost sports car-like handling. For the most part we weren't disappointed.

The engine feels strong and ballsy, but aside from bellowing, "Look how fast we're going" out of the tailpipes, there isn't necessarily a real sensation of speed. Everything feels heavy and solid, like an unstoppable German tank. This was probably Porsche's intention, but doesn't do much for sportiness.

The steering is nice and heavy, yet doesn't feel quite as slow as some of the others. We prefer the heft, but have a feeling that the majority of Cayenne drivers will have difficulty hustling through corners trying to hold a mobile phone to their ear with their right hand while simultaneously using three fingers of their left hand to hold a half-caff, triple non-fat cappuccino and steering with the remainder of their digits.

By Michael Febbo
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