2012 Mercedes-Benz M-class / ML350 4MATIC / ML350 BlueTec

2012 Mercedes-Benz M-class / ML350 4MATIC / ML350 BlueTec 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-class / ML350 4MATIC / ML350 BlueTec
First Drive Review From the October 2011 Issue of Car and Driver

Before the recession, Mercedes-Benz had no trouble selling 34,000 MLs in the U.S. each year. For 2011, the company’s best-known SUV is back on track to hit 30,000 sales. Right now, in fact, ML sales are up 14.5 percent. “It puts us in a funny position,” confesses Mercedes U.S.A. president and CEO Ernst Lieb. “We’re spending millions to replace a car that remains a huge profit center.” It’s like replacing Yankee Stadium’s hot dogs with, say, toaster waffles. Are you sure you want to mess with a good thing?

That’s nonetheless what Mercedes is doing with its third-gen M-class, which, we hasten to add, resembles wieners and waffles only in its ability to cause customers to queue up. The first to arrive is the ML350 4MATIC, powered by a new, direct-injection 3.5-liter gas V-6 producing 302 horsepower (an increase of 34). It will be partnered with the ML350 BlueTec 4MATIC, motivated by a redesigned 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel making 240 horsepower (an increase of 30). Base price for the gas ML is $49,865, and the diesel, now accounting for 13 percent of sales, fetches an additional $1500.

This new ML is about an inch longer and a half-inch wider, and it squats 0.8-inch lower than before. Cargo capacity behind the rear seat has grown seven cubic feet.

The baseball bat of a turn-signal/wiper stalk thankfully has been moved to the 10-o’clock position on the steering column, and its cruise-control function has been relegated to a second stalk at 8 o’clock. Unfortunately, you’ll still find yourself flicking at the column-mounted gear selector whenever you desire wipers. It’s annoying.

On road, we drove a gas-powered ML350 with the Dynamic Handling package. That $5150 option includes the Active Curve System (ACS), which decouples the anti-roll bars both off-road and during straight-ahead freeway slogs. We never felt it coupling or decoupling. We never felt it doing much of anything, to tell the truth, although body motions were satisfactorily controlled in the hills. But body motions were also satisfactorily controlled in a non-ACS ML we sampled, and that one didn’t max out at a cosmically startling $73,055. As the ML negotiates turns, you can still feel huge lateral load transfers, and the seats’ weak bolsters further suggest that this SUV might possess grand ambitions, but handling is not among them.

We’ll tell you one thing: This new ML is spectacularly quiet, subjectively as quiet as, say, a Lexus LX570, thanks to high-insulation glazing and additional sealing. And the ML pretty much matches the Lexus’s memorably cushy ride, too. Suspension travel feels endless; road nastiness is filtered to a fine fare-thee-well. Unfortunately, highway textures and slip angles are likewise filtered out of the light steering, as if such information might be an affront to the driver. The brake pedal isn’t doing much talking, either. At least interstate tracking is flawless.

The seven-speed transmission’s upshifts and kickdowns are supremely gentle, and engine roar is reduced to a velvety hum seemingly emanating from an adjacent ZIP Code. Fit and finish are of a quality that should make assembly workers in storm-smacked Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, proud. For two riders, back-seat legroom is excellent, kneeroom superb, headroom vast.

We nosed an ML350 BlueTec diesel off-road, through sippy holes, bogs, and ugly ruts. Over hill and dirty dale, the long-travel suspension, the silky dampers, and the rock-solid platform conspire to improve the experience. You’ll find that the road-biased M+S rubber, however, is not your ally in the mud. The diesel engine definitely is an ally—it’s among the most velvety oil-burners ever installed in a passenger car. No clatter, no soot, no odor, no tactile evidence to reveal its baser origins. The driver notices only a slightly delayed throttle response, an added half-second of laziness at step-off.

Eight-cylinder MLs will arrive in the first quarter of 2012. Two-wheel-drive models will follow, as will a more off-road-biased version with a terrain selector and a two-speed transfer case.

Mercedes says the new ML is only a few pounds heavier than its forebear, but the vehicle feels massive, a little slow-witted, and somewhat resistant to course corrections. If you’re looking for driving gratification or personality, well, it will have to derive from the M-class’s luxurious fittings and from its soothing soundlessness. Ten minutes after climbing out, you’ll remember the awesome stereo more than any dynamic merits. Sometimes progress smells like waffles.