In an attempt to reverse the stigma of gas guzzling land yachts, many premium automakers have taken steps to reduce fuel consumption and emissions in their SUVs, big and small. Whether driven by fuel prices or social pressure, owners are increasingly making SUV purchasing decisions based on fuel consumption. While priorities like safety, utility, versatility (not to mention status) may be paramount; the vehicles that will save their owners time and money at the pumps will certainly catch the eye of more buyers. While premium automobile manufacturers like Lexus and Cadillac have been developing hybrid initiatives to save face and fuel, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have been at the forefront of diesel technology that allows even the most hulking of SUVs to sip less fuel than a family sedan. Such technology is available on the ML350.
|1. Powered by a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 diesel, the ML350 BlueTEC makes 210-hp and 400 ft-lbs of torque.
2. With a tow rating of 7,200 lbs, the diesel ML matches that of the more expensive ML550 V8.
3. Fuel economy of 18/25 mpg, not only tops the 13/18 mpg rating of the V8, but even the 15/20 mpg rating of the V6.
4. The AWD ML350 BlueTEC starts at $49,700, just $1,500 more than the gasoline ML350 4MATIC.
Having received a mid-cycle update last year, the refreshed ML now gets the new ML350 moniker for 2010. Other than marketing, there’s no real reason for the new name, nor was there any particular reason for the ML320 badge on the older versions – the engine being neither a 3.5-liter, nor a 3.2.
USING BLUE TO GO GREEN
Mercedes-Benz introduced BlueTEC diesel engines to their line-up in 2006, offering superior fuel economy and towing capacity to their gasoline counterparts. While diesel engines boast many such advantages, there are also drawbacks, namely pollutants, which MB has addressed head on.
The BlueTEC technology works to reduce emissions thanks to several catalysts and an additive called AdBlue, which works as a part of a chemical reaction. AdBlue does need to be replaced but the vehicle will warn you when the fluid is getting low and it can be added during routine maintenance visits. The seven-gallon tank resides in the rear cargo area where a spare would normally be found – hence the ML350 BlueTEC coming with run-flat tires.
The real drawback to all this diesel emissions technology is that it makes diesel engines expensive. On a luxury SUV like the ML, there is already plenty of profit margin built in, however, and so the asking price is $4,000 more than a base gasoline model at $49,700. That number isn’t really accurate, however, as the BlueTEC is AWD. A 4MATIC ML350 actually only costs $1,500 less. And along with fuel economy, what the diesel offers, is excellent towing power, with a max rated towing capability of 7,200 lbs.
DIESEL? WHAT DIESEL?
While the ML350 offers technological advancements that save fuel and reduce emissions, it is also virtually undetectable as a diesel powered vehicle. Unlike its forefathers that were smelly and loud, the only hint that this ML is not petrol-powered is a subtle BlueTEC badges on the front fenders and rear tailgate. It is so uncharacteristically quiet and refined that not even my passengers could believe that it was a diesel. If I had refrained from telling them so, it would have continued to be my little secret.
The ML is available in various trim levels and offers a choice of four engines, each mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Every ML is available with all-wheel drive capabilities, aside from the ML350 rear-wheel-drive model. The ML350 BlueTEC utilizes an aluminum 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 rated at only 210-hp but with a respectable 400 ft-lbs of torque that comes in at a low 1600 rpm. Thanks to its variable-vane turbocharger, common rail injection and sophisticated engine mapping, power delivery is smooth and certainly ample for all but those who crave superior performance. Those drivers will likely to opt for the ML63 AMG, regardless of its fuel consumption and premium pricetag.
BLUETEC’S LONG RANGE HANDY, IN CASE YOU CAN’T FIND DIESEL FOR SALE
While its acceleration is nothing to get excited about, at about 8.0 seconds to 60 mph, the BlueTEC’s gas mileage is. With a rating of 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, it is able to travel 600 plus miles on a single tank of gas. For many, that is enough reason to go green with BlueTEC. Owners will rejoice at this extended range, especially as diesel isn’t always available. On route to return the ML, I attempted to top up the tank at four different stations, none of which offered diesel. Thankfully, the Command navigation system directed me to my options for the closest stations in range – an invaluable tool for those who purchase the BlueTEC ML.
NEITHER THE LUXURY OF A LEXUS, NOR THE SPORTINESS OF A BMW
Interior fit and finish is predictably of high quality, but is still easily surpassed by the likes of Audi and Lexus, especially for the price of admission. Materials are of decent quality, but controls take some time to get accustomed to.
In terms of passengers and space, there’s plenty or rear seat room and with a total of 72 cu.-ft. of cargo room, there’s plenty of space too.
Handling and overall drivability are also classic Mercedes; smooth, confident and precise. It’s still somewhat-like, however, and those looking for a sportier rival had best check with BMW.
Despite the many benefits of diesel vehicles, the technology continues to be a tough sell in the American market. While the price fluctuates close to that of 87 octane gasoline these days, you wouldn’t put anything less than premium in a Mercedes-Benz anyhow – so even a few extra cents a gallon is nothing to scoff at.
And in a larger SUV like the ML, the fuel savings are significant, the 18/25 mpg rating a significant improvement over the 15/20 mpg numbers for the V6 and a tremendous improvement over the 13/18 mpg rating of the ML550, which has exactly the same tow rating.
So if you need the towing capability or think you’ll make up the price premium in fuel economy, then this is the obvious choice over the V6. It’s also a very compelling V8 alternative, costing thousands less. And from my experience, your friends and neighbours will never know you bought a diesel.As for the rest of the vehicle’s attributes, I quite like the updated design, although, as mentioned, the interior isn’t as high-grade as it could be. The drive isn’t very sporty either, but that’s mostly irrelevant, as, in true Mercedes fashion, this Benz delivers a solid and serene driving experience.