Luxury SUVs are so ubiquitous now that you’d think they’d been around for decades. But our obsession with leather-lined wagons-on-stilts only dates back to the late ‘90s, a brief blip in automotive history. The Mercedes-Benz ML-Class and the Lexus RX300 were at the genesis – two radically different takes on the same formula, one car-based for better in-town manners, the other a rough-and-tumble near-off-roader with a German accent.
|1. The standard 3.5L V6 gets direct injection to increase power to 302-hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, while fuel economy also improves to 17/22-mpg.
2. The BlueTEC diesel makes 240-hp and 455 lb-ft of torque, and is rated at 20/25-mpg.
3. Despite being an all new model with new equipment Mercedes has held pricing on the 2012 ML, starting at $49,865 or $51,365 for the BlueTEC diesel.
Despite the ML’s less-than-glamorous reputation for poor reliability and questionable assembly, Mercedes-Benz stuck with the project, investing billions of dollars into the Alabama facility. The follow-up in ’05 was a redemption in terms of design, dynamics and overall quality. Mall parking lots full of the luxury SUV are the loudest confirmation it had the right combination of style, power and safety.
After another seven years, the ML is up for replacement, but with heavy competition coming from both established players in the segment and high-profile new entries, Mercedes-Benz won’t have it easy. In 2012, it’s no longer enough to just have the three-pointed star on the grille – it has to deliver much more than that.
NEW LOOK, NEW PLATFORM
The result is an SUV that’s slightly longer and wider, but shorter than before. The exterior seems less dramatic, but does carry over the sharper eyes, LED running lights and wide rear arches from MB’s latest sedans and coupes. The rear treatment mimics the new E-Class Wagon, but brushed-aluminum skidplates front and rear help butch up the design. The thick, sharply angled C-pillar is carried through for the third-gen too.
The standard 19-inch wheels with high-profile 255/50-series Continental tires look positively tiny stuffed into those big arches. For now, no up-sized options in the hope of sharpening up the steering. The ML now uses electric assistance for its power steering – as opposed to a hydraulic pump that leeches power from the engine. Besides the small gain in fuel economy, its main benefit is a new active parking system that automatically scans the street sides for a suitable spot, and guides you in without having to touch the wheel. The downside? No steering feel, although the effort is well judged.
Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler co-designed the chassis and some shared components under the skin, and we’ve already seen the positive results on the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Double-wishbone front suspension promises refinement and the multi-link rear design is a good compromise between wheel travel and on-road dynamics. From there, ‘Benz adds its own all-new active roll bars at both ends, which can individually control each corner rather than acting solely along each axle on traditional bars.
FAMILIAR GAS ENGINE GETS MORE POWER, FUEL ECONOMY
A seven-speed automatic transmission and full-time 4MATIC four-wheel drive are standard on every ML, as is a laundry list of active and passive safety systems, including ABS, brake assist, stability and traction control. The typical Mercedes mentality extends with lane-keep assist, attention assist, radar-based active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and nine airbags, including one in the steering column to protect a driver’s knees. Many bytes of data designed to keep you on the road and in one piece.
Motivation comes from two familiar engines. The 3.5-liter gasoline V6 gains direct injection, which means a total output of 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. The upgrades also improve fuel economy to 17 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. It’s smooth and refined, although not very vocal in this application.
DIESEL OPTION THE SMART CHOICE
For a few dollars more, the 3.0-liter BlueTEC turbodiesel V6 is a worthwhile choice, especially now that off-season tweaks have brought horsepower up to 240 and torque to a head-shaking 455 lb-ft. All that extra power doesn’t hit the pocketbook either since it’ll return 20 mpg in the city and 25 on the open road, despite the 300-lb weight penalty versus the gasoline engine.
Despite their differences, both models will accelerate to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, and are both rated to tow 7,200 lb., although we’d guess that the diesel would be more comfortable in that exercise.
Out on the road, the BlueTEC feels more effortless to drive since a small flex of your right foot unleashes Big-Block levels of torque, and passing maneuvers are generally stress-free affairs. The brakes are good, but the ML feels large and solid, not masking its size with agility-enhancing electronics like the Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5. Cabin din reasonably low, although there is some wind noise that makes its way through all the glazing and sound deadening.
STUNNING CABIN, PLENTY OF SPACE
The interior is a mix of old and new – the radio, HVAC controls and central COMMAND screen are familiar friends, but the rest of the gauges, seats and controls are new. Like the exterior, the cabin shares many more traditional themes with the E-Class sedan, but the materials are first rate. Soft-touch plastics and leathers mix well with wood and chrome. The heated seats are comfortable and adjust in a half-dozen different ways, and the rear seats are more spacious than before. Cargo area is generous, holding 36 cu-ft with the seats up, and 71 cu-ft with everything folded flat.
Mercedes-Benz’ willingness to conform more to popular opinion is shouted by the newly relocated turn signal stalk, which has been swapped with the cruise control stalk. Why it waited until now to make the change, no one knows.
Unlike some of its rivals, the ML is better equipped for 2012 yet retains its $49,865 price tag ($51,365 for the BlueTEC diesel.) But there are still places where customers can spend their hard-earned bucks if desired. Two Premium packages, active Xenon headlights, full leather seating and a rear-seat entertainment system are just some of the highlights. You could easily tack another $12K to the sticker without trying hard. For those itching for stronger performance or tighter handling, both the twin-turbocharged V8 ML550 and hot-rod ML63 will debut later in 2012 with suitably higher price tags.
But even the basic ML is a good compromise between luxury and safety. While it’s hard to pick out any one area where the ‘Benz excels, the improvements are small but significant. It won’t be long before the parking lots of Whole Foods and Starbucks will be jammed with them nose-to-tail.