First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class [Review]

Mercedes-Benz\'s bread-and-butter midsize SUV gets a thorough makeover for 2012. Can it continue its predecessor\'s success story?

With its totally new 2012 M-Class, Mercedes-Benz is replacing a model that is selling like hotcakes in its last few months in showrooms. That's the reverse of what normally happens toward the end of a product cycle. Sure, they've sold more than half-a-million copies the ML, as it's called, debuted in 1997. But are they out of their minds introducing a totally revised 2012 M-Class when the current model has never looked brighter? Perhaps it depends if you are a betting man or not. Mercedes-Benz USA President and CEO Ernst Lieb deals in sure things with an eye toward a win every now and then. "Our lineup is not necessarily comparable to those of our competitors. We see new buyers and new opportunities. It has been an intense year, which gives us lots of momentum. "With this new M-Class," he says, "we are replacing a model that is running away from us with improved sales." So to find out how runaway a ride this new M-Class was, we traveled to the great state of Montana, where there are a mere two Mercedes-Benz dealers located about 250 miles apart, to see if this horse could be broken. Arrivals and departures The 2012 M-Class remains a five passenger SUV that will, at launch, be available with a choice of 3.0-liter V6 BlueTEC diesel or 3.5-liter V6 direct-injected gasoline engines. As previous ML buyers have experienced, there will be other versions including a ML550 with twin-turbo V8, a ML350 2WD model, and the top of the big rock candy mountain, an AMG-tuned ML63, in the near future. A third row option is scheduled for some time in 2013, as well, although it certainly looks like it will be second-class seating back there. Observers will immediately recognize the vehicle as a Mercedes-Benz. Going totally radical with a new design is just not this German brand's style. Three-quarters of-an-inch lower than the model it replaces, the 2012 also benefits from a one-inch addition in length and half-an-inch growth in the width of the vehicle. In the grand scheme of things, the M-Class's wheelbase is relatively long, with short overhangs to take advantage of the laws of physics and the benefits of good packaging. The end results are benefits in interior comfort, and vehicle handling. The traditional Mercedes star is located in the center of the three-lamella grille, and is accented by chrome front and rear "skidplates" that add seriousness to the M's off-road capabilities. Roof racks and chrome doorsills are now standard, as are LED running lights. Optional bi-xenon headlights with active curve illumination are available. Mind you, we don't think it's ready for the Baja 1000, but it is stout enough to handle trails and hills that it will likely encounter during the daily lives of its owners. With a base price for the gas engine M-Class of $48,990, Mercedes-Benz has managed to hold the base MSRP at 2011 model year prices while increasing the value of its standard content by 3.2 percent. So what you get now is a bigger, safer, fuel-stingy vehicle for a lot fewer simoleons. (We love saying simoleons.) Cupholders and more Mercedes is totally jazzed over their award winning cupholders. (Yes, they have actually won Super Big Gulp-sized awards for the way they cool and/or heat drinks that are placed in them.) There are two "favorite" buttons, which enable individual drivers to input their preferences for frequently used features. A new four-spoke steering wheel houses touchpad-style buttons to operate various functions that are seen in the gauge binnacle's 4.5-inch center screen. These include navigation, audio and trip readouts. The various stalks including the drive selector, wipers and indicators, cruise control and tilt and telescoping features have been repositioned, for ease of use, although we found lots going on the left of the wheel, and occasionally hit the wipers while we intended to go for cruise control. Our tester featured eight-way seating controls, which are now found on the door instead of the side of the lower seat cushion. They're a nice touch and add a sense of common Mercedes controls to the M-Class; except for the fact they are in matte-black plastic instead of the satin metal finish found in other Mercedes vehicles. A seven-inch COMAND screen is flanked by air registers, and offers visual confirmation of inputs from the center console-mounted control dial. Pick a V6, any V6 Power for the ML350 comes from a 3.5-liter gas direct injection, multi-spark V6 engine that produces 302 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque. That's a 13 percent increase over the engine it replaces, with almost 12 percent better fuel economy. Assembled in a new 60-degree block, Mercedes officials claim it is no longer necessary to have counter-balance shafts to insure smooth operation. We were pleasantly surprised with the power it provided, not to mention, the 18.8 mile per gallon average during our test drive of nearly 250 miles, which falls right in line with early estimates of 17-city/22-highway mpg. On the other end of the power band, is the new ML350 BlueTEC 3.0-liter BlueTEC V6 turbo-diesel engine. Now cranking out 240 horsepower and a whopping 455 lb-ft of torque, it is the go-to mill for those in need of ultimate pulling power, or just those who appreciate the benefits of diesel operations. The use of AMG-derived twin-arc spraying technology replaces the cast iron cylinder liners of the previous V6 oil-burner, for a 9.5 pound reduction in engine weight, and a 3-percent increase in fuel economy. We felt it was not as quick to jump as we remember previous versions to be, but it still provided plenty of get-up-and-go. M-B says you'll get 22-city/25-highway mpg in the vehicle with its 4,756 lbs. curb weight. Either way, the engines are mated to M-B's seven-speed automatic transmission. Controlled by the gear selector stock, and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, it displayed rapid shift downs needed for passing or just a sporting ride. Mercedes-Benz's 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system comes standard, regardless of which engine choice is made and features 4-ETS electronic traction control, which basically runs with a 50/50 split, but is variable and capable of sending 100 percent of the power to one wheel. Electro-mechanical power steering now runs the show. Not running off the engine and sapping power like earlier systems, it offers ample assist at slow speed, with reduced assist at higher speeds. Agility control is standard, while an optional Dynamic Handling Package with Airmatic Adaptive Damping system and an Active Curve System with active anti-roll bars takes care of the handling. Split in the center, only one side of the anti-roll bar is affected in certain evasive maneuvers. It's the first time such a system has appeared on a Mercedes. So good is it, that our ML350 was tracking flatly while on a variable radius turn we encountered after taking the wrong highway exit. Conversely, long sweeping curves were handled in a manner that allowed us to proceed at speeds that would have caused much more body lean than we observed in this instance. The new M-Class is loaded with other content and assists including Attention Assist, adaptive brake control, brake drying and charging, as well as hill-hold and hill-start assists. Downhill Speed Regulation is available to act as a low-speed cruise control on steep downward grades in off-road situations. Blind Spot Assist is part of a $3.000 package, which among other things pulls you back into your lane should it sense anything in your blind spot. Drifting outside the lane causes a vibration on the steering wheel, and opposite rear wheel braking, which simulates torque vectoring to pull you back into your lane. Behind the wheel Plenty of power. We always say the more powerful the better, but the reality was that at 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, the new Direct Injection V6 supplies all the oomph that an average power-user will need. We were impressed with the seven-speed's quick step-down to a lower gear for passing especially on the mountain roads in southwestern Montana. Road noise on all but the coarsest of road surfaces was well controlled during our test-drive. But we were a little surprised that the BlueTEC engine with its 455 lb-ft did not give us the same feeling of confidence when blazing by drivers who seemingly were just out for a Sunday drive. On the safety side of things, we really feel the Distronic Plus radar-based adaptive cruise control is a useful assist. Using pre-set distances to maintain separation from cars in front and behind, it applies braking or acceleration as needed, according to conditions. Although we didn't get a chance to test it at its top limit of 125 mph, we felt its effect as it slowed us while we rapidly approached a slower moving vehicle ahead of us. It does have the ability, in stop and go traffic, to bring the M-Class to a complete halt. Leftlane's bottom line Mercedes-Benz continues to keep it fresh with an all-new version of its popular M-Class SUV. More powerful engines with better fuel economy, improved handling and new technologies are all ingredients to a prize-winning recipe. That they are able to do it and add additional content while holding the line on price-creep is even more impressive. 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 base price, $48,990. 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC base price, $50,490. Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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