The all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 starts at $48,990—the same price as its predecessor—boasting a slew of improvements and a lengthier standard equipment list. With its fuel economy of 17/22 mpg and a 4 year, 50,000 mile warranty, the M-class takes on its competitors with a modernized arsenal of goods.
How does it perform? To investigate, I drove the new ML across the mountain passes of Montana's Continental Divide.
First Glance: Gutsier, Thriftier, Slipperier
Power comes from a gutsier (302 horsepower, 273 lb-ft) 3.5 liter direct-injected V6 which also achieves better fuel economy than the outgoing mill. Available for an additional $1,500 is a 3.0 liter diesel with less horsepower (240) and more torque (455 lb-ft.) The transmission is a new 7Gtronic unit, while steering is provided with an electromechanical rack and pinion arrangement, and power is distributed through all four wheels via Mercedes' 4Matic system.
New standard items include an extra airbag (bringing the total number to 9), heated front seats, and a power liftgate. Also notable is the ML's updated exterior styling, which incorporates a flatter roofline that helps it achieve a drag coefficient of only .32, making this the most aerodynamic SUV on the planet. The 2012 ML also offers new safety items and driver assistance features like Attention Assist, as well as active and passive versions of Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist—everything you'd find in the top-dog S-Class sedan is available here. A new Dynamic Handling package with active ride height and damping is also optional.
To find out how Mercedes-Benz has updated the ML's interior, check out In the Driver's Seat.
In the Driver's Seat: Upscale and Americanized, For Your Cruising Comfort
The 2012 ML is as brand-spankin' new on the inside as it is on the outside. Standard Eucalyptus wood trim ornaments a plusher, more expensive feeling cabin that features a tall sweep of lumber across the dashboard and real bits of aluminum trim throughout. The center console incorporates a wheel that controls the COMAND system, with two "favorite" buttons on the side; a seven-inch screen displays navigation and menu information.
Climb aboard the ML, and you'll find a pleasant, spacious cabin that's familiar to fans of the triple-pointed star. Interior materials feel expensive, and there's an aura of conservative solidity to the M-Class, from its comfy thrones to the way an optional package offers neat multicolor ambient lighting. A few features make the ML more appealing to American buyers: larger cupholders are available with built-in heating and cooling, iPad mounts for rear passengers can be ordered at the dealer with a hookup into the audio system, and the rear seats now recline. Third row seats are also coming soon.
Despite its longer list of standard equipment, decking out an ML will cost you: Premium Package 1 with a rearview camera, navigation, and other goodies runs $3,600. Adding Premium Package 2 includes the aforementioned heated and cooled cupholders, a Harman/Kardon surround system, keyless go, and ambient lighting for $5,450, and the Dynamic Handling Package with air suspension and 20 inch wheels will run you $5,150. Shockingly, leather seats aren't standard; expect to spend $1,620 for that basic luxury.
On the Road: Think Smooth and Quiet Cruiser, Not Canyon Carver
The world looks good from behind the wheel of the M-Class: you're riding high in an imposing, nicely appointed sport ute with a commanding view of the road and plenty of amenities at your fingertips. The sensation is closer to piloting a GL-Class, Mercedes-Benz's larger SUV—and that's either good or bad, depending on how much you love driving.
You see, the diesel-powered ML350 Bluetec accelerates with steady, predictable thrust that won't endanger any land speed records. The engine is surprisingly quiet, especially at idle when the diesel clatter is almost entirely absent, and the cabin feels deliciously isolated from outside noise. But when the road turns—as it did in those sinewy Montana mountain passes—the ML doesn't quite tango with the twists. Turn-in feels reluctant, and I found myself slowing down more than usual in order to stay in control of the vehicle's dynamics. Although my tester was equipped with the optional active suspension, body roll was still perceptible (though a bit less pronounced than the non-active setup); I'd advise against the $5,150 package, which helped contribute to my test car's surprisingly lofty $65,015 sticker price.
The gasoline-powered iteration offers spunkier acceleration, which came in handy during off-the-line blasts and passing maneuvers, with smooth shifting from the 7-speed transmission. An off-road trail revealed an impressive ability to soak up ruts, rocks, and uneven patches. Though surprisingly comfortable on pebble-strewn stretches, MLs are likelier candidates for boulevard cruising than trailblazing in nature.
This is the type of SUV that's an ideal ride for mellow long distance driving, though its sticker price rises precipitously when the option boxes are ticked. If you're hungry for a sports car on stilts, you may want to wait for the AMG version. A lighter and cheaper two-wheel drive M-Class will also be offered by September of 2012. But if you're seeking a quiet, comfortable cruiser, the all-new ML will be waiting for you at dealerships in the fall of 2011.