2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Review
The family truckster is getting more refined.
- High-quality interior
- Pleasant road manners
- Powerful and efficient diesel engine
- High cost of admission
- Less expensive vehicles are closing in
- No third-row seat
The luxury SUV appeals to Americans because it lets us have our cake and eat it, too. We can ride in comfort with family and friends, sit up high to see over traffic, throw a bunch of junk in the back and maybe even tow the boat to the lake.
Few SUVs have delivered on those promises like the Mercedes-Benz ML, especially since it switched to a more comfortable car-type platform for the 2006 model year. For 2012, Mercedes is refining the formula further, upping the luxury quotient and improving the engine lineup.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class will be offered in two models: the gasoline-powered ML350 4Matic and the diesel ML350 BlueTec 4Matic, both with standard all-wheel drive. V8 models and at least one rear-drive model are due next year. Both models are loaded with features such as dual-zone automatic climate control, sunroof, heated front seats, HD radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, universal garage door opener, automatic headlights and P255/50R19 tires on alloy wheels.
Options are limited only by your wallet. Notable among them are leather upholstery, rearview camera, navigation system, satellite radio, 10-gigabyte music hard drive, Harman Kardon surround-sound audio, active bi-xenon headlights, rear DVD entertainment and a trailer package.
The ML is also loaded with standard safety features, including Attention Assist, Adaptive Brake and mbrace concierge and emergency service. It also has nine standard airbags, anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control.
Under the Hood
The 2012 ML gets an all-new gasoline-powered V6 engine and a heavily revised turbodiesel V6. The gas engine displaces the same 3.5 liters as last year, but it adds direct injection and changes from a 90- to a 60-degree configuration, which is the ideal design geometry for a V6. Horsepower is up from 268 to 302, torque increases from 258 to 273 lb-ft, and fuel economy rises from 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway to 17/22 mpg.
The diesel features a larger turbo this year, as well as optimized direct injection. The results are increases in horsepower from 210 to 240 and torque from 400 to 455 lb-ft. Fuel economy is also improved, from 18/25 mpg to 20/25 mpg. The lone transmission is a 7-speed automatic.
In the ML, Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system comes with a center transfer case that splits power 50/50 front and rear under normal conditions. An electronic brake differential detects and brakes the wheels that slip, sending power to the wheels with grip. In extreme circumstances, all of the power can go to one wheel.
Five-passenger SUVs/CUVs are improving across the board. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is especially nice, and it shares some of its bones with the ML. With that in mind, the ML has to deliver greater luxury to command its asking price.
Hop in and you'll find the ML is up to the task. Aluminum and burl walnut trim set off the soft-touch materials used for the dash, center console and door panels. The ambience is a step up from the ML's 7-passenger sister, the R-Class. Our only complaint is the standard vinyl seating. It looks like leather but isn't as supple. For close to $50K, leather should be standard.
The switch gear moves with precision, and the control stalks are moved to the 10 and 8 o'clock positions this year, where more drivers are used to them. The other controls are easy to reach, but Mercedes' Comand control interface requires a learning curve. This system uses a central knob on the center console and a group of buttons on the dash to control the communications, navigation and entertainment functions. The dashboard buttons eliminate some unnecessary clicks, and Mercedes has added two favorite buttons this year that can be programmed with commonly used functions. We like Comand, but it will turn off some old-school buyers.
The ML offers a few new features of note this year. Heated and cooled cupholders are available, but you have to spend $5,450 to get them. Blind Spot and Lane Keep Assist are offered in two packages, one with passive notification and the other with active control that uses the brakes to keep the vehicle in its lane. We found both systems work as advertised, and they are useful for today's distracted drivers.
The ML has plenty of space for five. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and they will even accommodate taller drivers. The second row has good headroom and legroom for two, and enough width for a third passenger. In the interest of second-row comfort, the outer portions of the bench are substantially bolstered. This prevents the seatbacks from folding flat onto their bottoms. That's not an issue because the 60/40 split second row folds in two steps: the bottoms fold forward first, then the backs fold down to create a flat load floor.
With the second row up, there is a handy 36.2 cubic feet of space, and that almost doubles to 71 cubic feet when the second row is folded. That's more than a Ford Edge, but less than a BMW X5. A standard power liftgate makes the space easy to use.
On the Road
The new engines are the story this year. Both make the ML pretty quick, as they post identical 7.3-second zero-to-60 mph times. Most impressive of the two is the 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel. It offers strong low-end torque and gets up to speed smoothly and quietly. It does its best work at speed, when the turbo is spooled up, making highway passing a breeze. The gasoline engine, on the other hand, is gruffer. It winds much higher and makes more noise to sprint to 60 mph, though it's still fairly quiet. Highway passing is also worry-free, but not as easy as with the diesel.
Better yet, the diesel goes easier on fuel, averaging three mpg more overall. While it costs $1,500 more, diesels often command twice that premium. The savings at the pump means most buyers will recoup the extra cost within four years, and they'll enjoy a more responsive powertrain along the way.
The 7-speed automatic transmission works well with both engines, but you'll need and notice the downshifts more often with the gas engine. We like that Mercedes provides steering-wheel shift paddles. They help during aggressive driving or when you just want to use them to help slow the vehicle with downshifts.
From behind the wheel, the ML offers an elevated seating position, but the ride is smooth and composed. The steering is somewhat dull on center, but variable gearing makes it quicker the farther the steering wheel is turned. The brakes are strong and predictable.
The standard suspension handles bumps well and does a good job of controlling body lean and nose dive during cornering and braking. The optional Dynamic Handling package has an adaptive air suspension that can raise or lower the vehicle. It also comes with Active Curve Control, which uses split stabilizer bars that firm up in turns to limit body lean. The air suspension has Sport and Comfort settings to firm up or smooth out the ride. It also automatically lowers the vehicle at highway speeds to increase stability, and the driver can choose to raise the ML 3 inches to help it clear off-road obstacles. Sport mode helps the ML stay flatter in turns. It's the clear choice for twisty roads, and it's not so firm that those who like more road feel won't want to use it regularly. Comfort works well, to, as it doesn't make the ML too floppy.
While the 4Matic AWD system works best for inclement weather, the center transfer case and electronic limited-slip differential help the ML scrabble over some pretty surprising terrain.
Right for You?
Anyone who has to carry four or five passengers and their cargo on a regular basis would benefit from a crossover SUV. After that, it's a matter of how much you want to spend for luxury. If refinement and style are top priorities, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML is an excellent choice. We recommend the diesel. It's smoother and more powerful and offers better fuel economy.
(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Mercedes-Benz provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.