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By Sam Moses
   
Overview

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is all new, with ML350 4MATIC gasoline and ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC diesel versions available. Read on for a detailed review of the smoother and better next generation M-Class. Spoiler warning: it’s sick!


Mercedes-Benz invented the luxury SUV, with the 1998 ML320. Now
comes the third generation, with a new 3.5-liter engine. The ’98 ML320
made 215 horsepower and got 17/21 miles per gallon, according to the
NewCarTestDrive.com archives.

By comparison, the all-new 2012
Mercedes-Benz ML350 makes 302 horsepower and gets 17/22 mpg. That’s
substantially more power without sacrificing fuel economy. Using the
Consumer Price Index, today’s ML350 costs about 10 percent less than the
comparable model did in 1998. The 2012 ML350 has technical
capabilities, features and quality that the 1998 model only dreamed of.
Too much to list, as they say.

The 2012 ML350 third-generation
model is about the same size as the 2011 second-generation version. Made
in Alabama, the 2012 ML350 is 1 inch longer, 0.5 inch wider, 0.75 inch
lower, and 22 pounds heavier than the previous model.

The 2012
ML350′s new 3.5-liter direct-injection V6 is smoother, more powerful,
and more fuel efficient than the 2011 version. It’s mated to a new
7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. We found the new
3.5-liter gas engine exceptionally smooth, and it provides rapid
acceleration. The new 7-speed automatic is sweet, at least until you try
to tell it what do.

The new ML350 looks lower and wider, even
though the eye can’t discern those fractions of an inch. Designers have
added distinctive and powerful styling to the front and side views.
Muscle-car hood. The back isn’t bad but it could be a Kia.

The
M-Class interior has been upgraded for 2012 (and it’s not easy to
upgrade a Mercedes interior). The seat cushioning is just right. More
bolstering would be helpful going around corners, but lower bolsters are
easier for getting in and out and for unloading children. The standard
MB-Tex upholstery is as good as leather, but the optional stitched black
leather is elegant. Walnut touches come standard, and aluminum trim
says class. The ML350 is extremely quiet inside. The interior is well
laid out and the rear seat is roomy enough.

The standard
equipment list for 2012 is long, longer than last year, but the options
list is eye-opening. You can spend many thousands of dollars in options,
and might need to, to get the equipment a Mercedes is expected to have.

It’s
designed to be extremely safe, with nine airbags, crumple zones and
steel-reinforced cabin, and it has a sensitive Electronic Stability
Program. But we noted a big blind spot over the driver’s right shoulder,
caused by the C-pillar.

The ride is totally smooth. We tried and
tried, on Montana back roads including gravel, to find a bump the
suspension couldn’t smooth out, to no avail. The ride is solid, steady
and comfortable in every situation. The ML350 doesn’t like fast or quick
cornering, not even with the $5,150 Dynamic Handling Package.

All
2012 ML350s come standard with 4Matic all-wheel drive. The
sophisticated AWD system maintains a 50/50 torque split on dry pavement,
but can send 100 percent of the torque to one wheel, if necessary.
Three wheels deep in mud, one on dry land, and the Benz should drive
right out.

The ML350 BlueTEC features the latest diesel
technology, with a 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine making 240 horsepower and a
gigantic 455 pound-feet of torque at 1600 rpm, rated for towing up to
7200 pounds, same rating as the gas engine because of the chassis, but
with far less engine effort. The BlueTEC is estimated at 20 city and 25
highway mpg.

The BlueTEC model has everything in common with the
ML350 4Matic except the engine, which makes it feel like it has nothing
in common. Everything happens slower in the BlueTEC, making the vehicle
feel stodgy. The ride is as smooth, but acceleration isn’t. Redline is
4200 rpm instead of 6200, the transmission shifts at different times,
and slower. The BlueTEC is high-tech diesel and old-school Mercedes,
nothing wrong with that.

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Model Lineup

The ML350 4MATIC ($49,865) uses the
new 3.5-liter V6, and the ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC ($51,365) uses the
3.0-liter V6 diesel. Both come standard with power everything, from
sunroof to liftgate, leather-like upholstery and wood trim, Bluetooth,
7-inch display screen, shift paddles, LED taillamps, aluminum roofrails,
and 19-inch alloys.

Standard safety equipment includes nine
airbags, ABS with brake assist, ESP, LED daytime running lights and
taillamps, tire pressure monitor, ATTENTION ASSIST, and ADAPTIVE BRAKE.

Available
safety equipment includes a Lighting Package ($1290) with bi-Xenon
headlamps, adaptive high beam assist, and corner illumination; Lane
Tracking Package ($850) with blind spot assist and lane keeping assist;
and Driver Assistance Package ($2950) that turns the warnings active,
and at speeds below 45 mph will apply the brakes when you’re headed for a
crash: 2.6 seconds before impact it beeps at you, at 1.6 seconds it
applies 40 percent of the brakes, and at 0.6 seconds it slams them on.

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Walkaround

The new 2012 ML350 looks hot in black,
wider and lower. There’s distinctive and powerful styling to four-fifths
of the ML350, the front and side views. You know it’s a new Mercedes.
The back isn’t bad but it could be a Kia.

With a long wheelbase,
high beltline and short overhangs, the ML350 looks stylish from the
side, especially in black (silver loses something). Stainless steel trim
accentuates the line. Mercedes brags about the chrome door handles, we
say who needs ‘em.

Notes say: lots of funkiness, cool black teeth
in grille, black chicken wire in nose, powerful sculpted hood with
intakes, muscular headlamps, roof vents, big chrome skidplate wraps
under chin, cheesy running boards, side sculpting BMW-like, steep rear
slope, spoiler, rear chrome skid plate.

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Interior Features

The view through the windshield of the
M-Class isn’t expansive to match the grandeur of the car, but meanwhile
front seats aren’t crowded by the dash.

The instrumentation is
pretty and well-designed, in aluminum not chrome. Big 7-inch screen at
the top of dash, bordered by swiveling vertical HVAC vents. Climate
control has a bunch of buttons; other cars make just three work. Not too
many steering-wheel controls, but transmission paddles bigger than
necessary for sport shifting.

Wide center console with good
cubbies, including well-placed coin holder. It’s deep but not long.
Heated and cooled cupholders, how cool is that! Big door pockets. Not
much rear seat legroom, but enough.

Big blind spot! A sacrifice
to looks, as it’s a result of the C-pillar that Mercedes didn’t want to
change, thinking it’s the visual identity of the M-Class. Rearview
camera is optional; we recommend getting it.

Optional panoramic
roof doubles the size of the sky. Optional DVD system gives rear
passengers even more to look at. Optional iPod docking station gives
them more to do.

There are eight stainless buttons for radio and
navigation on the center console, with unpainted etched icons that are
almost impossible to see; why isn’t the etched part painted? Feels like
sloppy work. The optional navigation system was problematic, freezing
twice in four hours.

The cruise control stalk has been changed,
after 15 years of people complaining that the car sped up when they
bumped the lever while turning left. Now it’s not so easy to engage by
mistake.

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Driving Impressions

The new engine is exceptionally smooth, while being powerful at
302 horsepower. It’s aluminum, a narrow 60-degree V6, while most V
engines are 90 degrees. The acceleration is excellent, you don’t need
more than this; engine is mated to a mechanically sweet new 7-speed
automatic transmission.

Driving casually, the transmission is so
smooth you forget it’s there. The transmission is less sweet in manual
mode, where it gets disobedient. It refuses to short-shift, upshift with
moderate throttle at low rpm, or when the throttle is backed off.

The
ride is smooth like the acceleration. We tried and tried, on Montana
back roads including gravel, to find a spot the suspension couldn’t
handle, to no avail. The ride of the ML350 is solid, steady and
comfortable in every situation we could find.

The ML350 doesn’t
like fast or quick cornering, though. Despite its new active rear
anti-roll bar, part of the Dynamic Handling Package that our ML350 came
with, also including active damping, air suspension, and 20-inch wheels
with all-season tires. We pitched the ML350 into some twisties, and it
responded with insecurity and reluctance to track true.

Maybe
it’s the new active electro-mechanical steering, and not the suspension
or the $5150 worth of dynamic handling. The active rear anti-roll bar is
split in the middle, and adjusts according to the needs of separate
rear wheels; theoretically it eliminates body roll, but you won’t hear
us say that.

All ML350s are 4MATIC, or all-wheel drive (another
thing you didn’t get in 1998 for $54,824 of today’s dollars). The
sophisticated system stays at 50/50 on dry pavement, but can put 100
percent of the torque to one wheel, if necessary. With three wheels in
mud, one on dry land, the Benz should drive right out.

We weren’t
able to test that, but we got great seat time off-road, and we were
pretty much dazzled by the ML350′s performance on Montana gravel and
dirt roads. We wanted to drive it like a rally car, but the ESP wouldn’t
allow it. It was highly intrusive, shutting down the throttle at the
mere hint of a slide.

The pre-tensioning seatbelts became a drag,
too. We were hardly sliding at all, and the car kept shouting: We’re
gonna crash, we’re gonna crash! So the belts kept strangling us at the
chest.

It was amazing how the chassis smoothed out the bumps,
whether in Comfort mode, or Sport mode with raised air suspension in the
Dynamic Handling option. We found a rocky and rutty fire trail, and the
big Benz just laughed.

We locked the brakes to test them on the
gravel, and the stops were quick, true and drama-free with ABS, even at
50 mph. We ran hard for the final few miles on twisty downhill pavement,
and the brakes smelled hot but didn’t fade.

Our ML350 had the
Driver Assistance Package, which includes a Active Blind Spot Assist
that like all of them was flawed by false alarms, and Active Lane
Keeping Assist, which keeps you from drifting across lanes or off the
edge of the road, by vibrating the steering wheel and applying the
brakes selectively to one side of the car to correct the motion. It too
was flawed by over-reaction. True, if you’re falling asleep and drift
toward the edge of the road it might save your life; but the rest of the
time the problem is it keeps trying to save you before you fall out of
the boat.

But you don’t have to pay extra just to be warned.
Standard safety equipment includes ATTENTION ASSIST (their caps).
There’s an icon of a coffee cup that lights up while a message suggests
you get off the road because you’re weaving. Sensors measure “erratic
steering corrections.” Those sensors are tough. If you weave just once
you’re marked as a possible drunk or dozer. And guaranteed, you will
weave more than once, trying to work all the stuff on the console with
the display screen and that mouse-like thing that they all claim isn’t
distracting, for example while tuning, searching, selecting and
inputting any of things you might do using the COMAND System that comes
with the Premium 1 package.

Driving the diesel-powered ML350
BlueTEC version revealed it has everything in common with the regular
ML350 except the engine, which makes it feel like it has nothing in
common. Before you go ML350 shopping, know your needs. We’d say that
towing is the only reason to buy the diesel, good as it is. It only gets
3 miles per gallon more than the gas engine, costs $1500 more (which
isn’t much for 3 mpg). But it gives up excitement.

Basically,
everything under the hood and in the cabin just happens slower with the
BlueTEC, and makes the vehicle feel less nimble. The ride is as smooth,
but the acceleration isn’t. Redline is only 4200 rpm instead of 6200,
but the powerband is so broad and there’s so much torque (455
foot-pounds at 1600-2400 rpm) that the transmission could be a 3-speed
and still work. For some reason, the transmission sometimes surged
during slow shifts with the diesel engine.

Summary

The
redesigned Mercedes ML350 offers a new 3.5-liter V6 engine, 7-speed
paddle-shifting transmission, sharper exterior styling and a luxury
interior. The engine is super smooth while being more powerful and fuel
efficient, and the ride is superb in all conditions. It struggles to
remain precise when it’s being pushed on twisty roads, but few heavy
SUVs can do better. The ML350 BlueTEC model with the diesel engine slows
everything down, while offering 3 more miles per gallon and monster
torque for towing.

Have you taken the new M-Class for a test drive yet? Let us know in the Forums!

Content provided by NewCarTestDrive.com

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Model Line Overview

Model lineup:    Mercedes-Benz ML350 4MATIC ($49,865); ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC ($51,365)
Engines:    302-hp 3.5-liter V6; 240-hp 3.0-liter diesel V6
Transmissions:    7-speed automatic with paddle shifting
Safety
equipment (standard):    nine airbags, ABS with brake assist, ESP,
descent control, Attention Assist, Adaptive Brake, LED taillamps and
daytime running lights, tire pressure monitor
Safety equipment
(optional):    bi-xenon headlamps with corner illumination; Lane
Tracking Package with blind spot assist and lane keeping assist; Driver
Assistance Package with active intervention
Basic warranty:    3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in:    Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Specifications As Tested
Model tested (MSRP):    Mercedes-Benz ML350 4MATIC ($49,865)
Standard
equipment:    leather upholstery and eucalyptus wood trim, power
everything, Bluetooth, 7-inch display screen, shift paddles, power
liftgate, LED taillamps, aluminum roofrails, 19-inch alloy wheels
Options
as tested (MSRP):    Black leather ($1620), Iridium Silver paint
($720), Premium 2 Package ($5050), Active parking assist ($970),
Multi-function steering wheel ($590), Dynamic Handling Package ($5150),
Lighting Package ($1290), Panorama Sunroof ($1090), Heated/Active
Ventilated front seats ($570), Trailer Hitch ($550), Stainless steel
running boards ($670), Rear Seat Entertainment ($1970), Driver
Assistance Package ($2950)
Destination charge:    ($875)
Gas guzzler tax:    N/A
Price as tested (MSRP):    $73,055
Layout:    all-wheel drive
Engine:    3.5-liter 24-valve direct injection V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm):    302 @ 6500
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm):    273 @ 2400 to 5000
Transmission:    7-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy:    17/22 mpg
Wheelbase:    114.8 in.
Length/width/height:    189.1/84.3/70.7 in.
Track, f/r:    65.1/65.6 in.
Turning circle:    38.7 ft.
Seating capacity:    5
Head/hip/leg room, f:    38.9/na/40.3 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m:    N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r:    38.5/na/38.4 in.
Cargo volume:    71 cu. ft.
Payload:    N/A
Towing capacity:    7200 Lbs.
Suspension, f:    independent, double wishbone
Suspension, r:    independent, multi-link
Ground clearance:    N/A
Curb weight:    N/A
Tires:    255/50R19
Brakes, f/r:    vented disc/solid disc with ABS
Fuel capacity:    24.6 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.

All prices are manufacturer’s suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of July 08, 2011.
Prices do not include manufacturer’s destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.

Manufacturer Info Sources: 800-367-6372 – www.mbusa.com
   

 
 
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