The alphanumeric soup of Mercedes-Benz SUVs has gotten a bit simpler with the elimination of the R-Class, but one oddball still hangs in there: The M-Class. I got a chance to drive the 2013 M-Class recently, and I've finally got a handle on this not-a-G Mercedes-Benz SUV. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC carries a base price of $51,270, a 4-year/50,000-mile warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Before we burn some fuel, let's review. Mercedes-Benz's SUV lineup for 2013 looks like this: The GLK-Class is a compact, two-row SUV, available with just one powertrain (a 3.5-liter gasoline V6). The GL-Class is a large, three-row SUV, available with three powertrain choices (a 3.0-liter diesel V6; a 4.6-liter gas V8; and a high-output version of the V8). The G-Class is that great big, boxy wagon that looks like it rolled right out of the German Army's motorpool, through a chrome shop and onto the showroom floor.
Which leaves the M-Class. Until its redesign for the 2012 model year, I would have called the M-Class Mercedes' minivan, but a sleeker, more sculpted M-Class has emerged. Bigger than the GLK, smaller than the GL, the ML now fits in nicely with the family, sharing some design cues from each sibling.
ML is available in four flavors, from the gas V6-powered ML350 and V8-powered ML550 models to the high-zoot ML63 AMG, which burns hundred dollar bills and produces a zillion horsepower. I got to drive the ML350 BlueTEC, powered by M-B's 3.0-liter diesel V6.
In the Driver's Seat
I don't really love Mercedes-Benz's interior designs, but I completely understand and appreciate them. On the plus side, everything is beautifully put together, with high quality materials and tight tolerances. Each knob and button is precisely machined, and operates with solid authority. On the minus side, I could fall asleep trying to count the buttons and knobs on the ML's dash. They are arranged with indisputable logic and order -- but they are lost in a sea of sameness. I found that I had to take my eyes off the road in order to find the right button to push or knob to twist. I'd prefer a little less order, and a little more attention to how a driver will actually interface with the dash.
As far as comfort goes, though, I had no complaints. ML's cabin is sized just right, and I never felt cramped or fatigued while driving. I have spent enough time in the current generation of Mercedes-Benz SUVs now that the steering column-mounted gear selector seems natural, and its placement frees up space in the center console for a good set of cup holders, concealed by a tambour cover when not in use. Also, I've always liked the placement of the seat controls on Mercedes door panels, up high with a shape that mimics a seat.
Second row passengers were somewhat less generous with their praise for the ML, complaining of cramped leg and foot room and bemoaning a lack of thigh support. I suppose I could have moved my seat forward a bit while driving, but that would have been unselfish.
ML does hit the sweet spot in the utility department, with 38.2 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second row. Fold down the seat, and a cavernous 80.3 cubic foot space opens up behind the first row. If that's not enough room for you, the ML is rated to tow up to 7,200 lbs.
On the Road
If you've been reading carefully, you'll recall that my test vehicle was an ML350 BlueTEC -- a diesel-powered vehicle. I've barely mentioned this fact, because it's pretty much transparent in operation. The diesel engine doesn't announce itself as different under power or when idling. I'd bet that the average passenger would never realize that they were in a diesel-powered SUV. As a driver, I certainly noticed the 455 lb-ft of peak torque that the 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel pumped out from 1,600 rpm to 2,400 rpm. That's a lot of torque, which makes the ML jump off the line, as much as a 5,000 lb SUV can jump. It takes about 7.5 seconds for the ML350 BlueTEC to get to 60 mph from a dead start -- the same interval that the gasoline-powered V6 ML350 needs to achieve the feat. Not fast when measured against sportscars or V8-powered SUVs, but still plenty impressive for a diesel. And you never catch the ML working hard, either. The 7-speed automatic transmission delivers a smooth, comfortable scoot up and down the speedometer.
All that mass cannot be hidden, though, and when it comes to careening around curves, ML feels a little portly. Standard AIRMATIC suspension and 4MATIC all-wheel drive controls things pretty well, but push ML hard and it feels like changing directions is the last thing on its mind. You'd have to do something really crazy to roll your ML, with its low center of gravity, 5.4" of ground clearance and a host of electronic nannies aboard to keep you from having unintended fun.
Mercedes-Benz bundles features into optional packages, and my test vehicle had a few of these bundles aboard, including the Premium 1 Package ($3,700), which is pretty much essential luxury vehicle stuff like navigation, rearview camera, enhanced voice control and driver's memory seat with power tilt/telescoping steering column. The Driver Assistance Package ($2,800) is one I could do without, even though I recognize the safety advantages of Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist, along with DISTRONIC PLUS cruise control. I always start out using these features, and within a few hours of driving, they've driven me insane and I turn them off.
I find myself a little bit split on the ML350 BlueTEC. I'm almost compelled to make a bad metaphor in order to explain how I feel about it, but I'll just say it outright -- fantastic powertrain in an okay SUV. There's nothing big wrong with the ML as an SUV, but I can't get too excited about it, either. The luxury's not overwhelming at the base level, unless you add a few expensive optional packages. Low ground clearance means that you'll never want to stray off pavement, even with standard all-wheel drive and air suspension. That diesel engine, on the other hand, is to die for. Great power, smooth operation and exceptional efficiency, delivering on the promise that diesel has held out for so long.
ML isn't the only midsize diesel-powered German SUV out there. The Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Volkswagen Touareg are all available with 3.0-liter diesel engines, and pretty good ones at that. BMW's is an inline engine, while the rest are V6 configurations. Pricing on the diesels is pretty comparable, with the near-luxury VW undercutting the others by a few dollars. Expand your consideration beyond diesel, and the competition gets even stiffer, adding non-German SUVs to the mix.
If you're set on diesel, however, Mercedes-Benz has the longest history in the US with diesel power. If the ML appeals to you based on design and function, the diesel might seal the deal for you. I wish that more luxury features were included at the base level, but not everybody wants power everything and a navigation system. I get it, but I expect more for $51,000.