There’s a place in Montana that looks like a scene from the Old West yet may be the most luxurious dude ranch on the planet.
The Resort at Paws Up Ranch, just north of Missoula, is where Harrison Ford and his co-stars in the new movie “Cowboys and Aliens” recently held their cast party – and where Mercedes-Benz unveiled its 2012 ML350 SUV a few weeks ago.
Along with other media members, we slept in tents, rode horses, cut cattle and toasted s’mores under the stars. The scenery was gorgeous – complete with a ghost town, elk in the meadows and yellow-bellied marmots the size of cocker spaniels living under our tents.
Of course, the tents were nothing like the ones at Scout camp. These were furnished with antique double beds and featured full, floor-heated bathrooms. They call it “glamping” – I call it cowboy decadence. Those who weren’t up for the full wilderness-as-designed-by-Martha-Stewart experience could sleep in the ranch homes on the spread.
Step off the ranch and the surrounding area resembles its wild-west past – but the ML350s we drove were straight out of the future. The vehicle’s state-of-the-art electronic safety system keeps it from wandering off the road or over the center lane and maintains stability on fast, sweeping curves or dirt-track bumps. If the driver doesn’t notice that traffic is stopping ahead, the system can slow the vehicle or have it come to a complete stop.
This is an important vehicle for Mercedes. Like BMW and Lexus, manufacturers of the other two leading mid-range luxury SUVs, the ML is among Mercedes’ top-three selling vehicles. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s driven past an elementary school in Los Altos at 3 p.m. Comparing the new M-Class with these two competitors, it is clearly in a higher pasture.
Speaking of pastures, we were impressed by the variety of activities available on the 37,000-acre Paws Up Ranch. It’s a perfect place to take a family for a week of outdoor fun.
Trail rides are available on horseback and ATV, and there’s even a herd of cattle that can be driven just like on the Chisholm Trail. There’s fly-fishing, skeet shooting and archery instruction offered as well, and I even rappelled 150 feet down a rocky cliff (though I’m not sure Roy Rogers ever rappelled).
A river runs through the spread, so float trips and kayaking are easily accessible. We even took buckboards to a riverside campsite for a barbecue and party one moonlit evening.
But with the ML350s lined up at the hitching rack, we couldn’t spend all our time in cowboy mode. On a long day’s drive we crossed the Continental Divide three times, twice on the interstate at high speeds and once on a narrow and curving two-lane back road, and even down dirt ruts to the ghost town.
The new ML suspension system we had seen demonstrated in Germany uses hydraulically controlled sway bars at the front and rear to keep the car level at high speeds but provides fully independent wheel movement to smooth out the bumps on off-road trails.
Coupled with the variable-ratio, electronically assisted power steering, this is an easy and confident highway hound that can still get you out of the snow or through the mud when that’s what separates you from your campground.
Power and acceleration are excellent with either of the two engines. The new ML350 will be available with a 302-horsepower BlueDIRECT 3.5 liter V-6 gasoline engine and redesigned 240-horsepower 3-liter BlueTEC diesel engine. Both engines are capable of towing 7,200 pounds, twice the capacity of either of their two main competitors.
The mid-sized luxury SUV market is a challenging and highly competitive segment. Even though Mercedes can claim to have invented the niche, BMW came in strongly with its X5 not many years later and Lexus wasn’t far behind, adding the luxury and comfort for which they’ve become justifiably renowned.
Mercedes officials believe they’ve leapfrogged everyone with their new interior and exterior styling, and choice of gasoline or diesel engines.
The nice thing about all of these cars is that in their most recent entries, they’ve all significantly improved their mileage. In a segment where 14 mpg was typical 10 years ago, everyone now has combined mpg ratings of 20 or better. In addition, all of these cars are now vastly improved from the carbon emitters of old.
But because of its extensive range of new safety systems (the reason most owners in this area seem to buy an SUV), and excellent handling, combining comfort and confidence, we think the new ML350 is going to leap back up to the top of the segment when it is released this fall.
Our few days at Paws Up proved that even in the Old West, the new technology would be right at home.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.