2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350
Germany’s Mercedes-Benz lays claim to the invention of the modern luxury sport utility vehicle. It was the M-Class, dubbed ML320, introduced as a 1998 model.
The original was a truck-based SUV that, in keeping with the times, emphasized the utility share of the equation. Its body was bolted to a full frame and the five-speed automatic transmission featured a low range for off-road crawling over rocks, moraines and other detritus. The engine delivered 215 horsepower from 3.2 liters of displacement.
Inside, there were full accommodations for five, including three separate seats in back that could be individually adjusted and folded to trade among passengers and cargo. A third-row seat was an option.There were two shockers that created a lot of initial buzz: the ML320 was American-made in a new plant in Alabama, and it carried an un-Mercedes-like low price. Nicely equipped, it came in at less than $35,000.
Well, as they say, it’s come a long way, baby. After an initial spurt, dampened by some nagging reliability issues, it settled into an also-ran status behind the Lexus RX, which arrived later and was a softer, less-capable crossover utility vehicle designed more for looks and on-road cruising in serene isolation.
To compensate, Mercedes did an about-face in 2005 with the second-generation M-Class. It switched from body-on-frame to a unit body like the Lexus, lost its full three seats in back and generally became a more luxurious crossover utility vehicle emphasizing on-road comfort and performance.
Even so, it continued to trail the Lexus RX. In 2010, buyers signed up for 29,698 M-Class Mercedes-Benzes, compared to 95,790 who picked the Lexus. Even the Acura ML totted up 47,210 sales.
That pecking order may continue, but for 2012 the Mercedes transformation continues unabated with two all-new M-Class models: one with a diesel engine; the other fueled by gasoline. Likely these two will snare a bigger share of the market—or not—but it may not be crucial because Mercedes has bracketed the segment with two other SUVs: the giant GL and the smaller GLK.For its part, the new M-Class becomes even cozier with the luxury community. That is not to say it is not capable, even off-road, but the orientation is toward a relationship that is friendly, with benefits. Should you be so inclined, it still has off-road capabilities. But it is doubtful that many buyers will chance encounters with rocks, logs and things that scratch paint. An optional package of off-road modifications was not even available initially.
There are two power plants for the new M-Class: a 240-horsepower, 3-liter diesel engine and a 302-horsepower, 3.5-liter gasoline version. Both drive all four wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually with paddles on the steering wheel.
Europeans, always favored in the economy realm because of their high fuel prices, will also be able to choose a 204-horsepower, 2.1-liter four-cylinder diesel with a mileage rating in the thirties. Mercedes is mum about whether that engine eventually will come to the United States.
Officials said they started fresh in designing the 2012 M-Class. “We pressed every button to provide a new SUV driving experience,” Uwe Ernstberger, the Mercedes vice president of program management, said at the introduction in Stuttgart, Germany.It shows as soon as you get behind the wheel. The tested new BlueTEC diesel ML350 handled competently yet had a butter-soft ride on the highway—more limousine-like than anything expected in an SUV with off-road chops. Moreover, that was on the version with the standard suspension system.
But sophistication has a price. The test car had a base sticker of $51,365, which is $1,500 more than the gasoline model. Its fuel consumption is rated at 20/25 miles to the gallon compared to the gasoline model’s 17/22.
With options that included a navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, stainless steel running boards, lane-keeping and blind-spot assist, rear-view camera, double sun visors and the Mercedes automatic parking system, Parktronic, the bottom-line sticker price came to $57,605.
Moreover, it’s possible to boost the tab to more than $75,000 with options like a dynamic handling package that includes an air suspension system, Distronic automatic cruise control, panoramic sun roof, rear-seat entertainment and leather upholstery.
That’s right. The standard seat covering is a vinyl that Mercedes calls MB-Tex. It has a bit of a harsh feel—not soft like fine leather—but looks as if it could outlast the vehicle. From a comfort standpoint, it’s not much different from leather upholstery—warm and sticky in the summer and cold in the winter. If you want the real leather upholstery on the M-Class, it will set you back $1,620.
As expected, the M-Class comes with every computer-aided electronic safety feature available, including one that can detect when a driver is drowsy and needs to pull over for a cup of coffee.
One interesting new wrinkle is an option that allows owners to use their own iPads as rear-seat entertainment. The iPads slip into docks on the backs of the front seats and connect to the ML’s sound system.
Specifications- Model: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC four-door crossover utility vehicle. - Engine: 3-liter V6 diesel, turbocharged, 240 horsepower. - Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual shift control. - Overall length: 15 feet 9 inches. - EPA passenger/cargo volume: 107/36 cubic feet. - Weight: 5,040 pounds - EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 20/25 miles to the gallon. - Base price, including destination charge: $51,365. - Price as tested: $57,605.