Mercedes-Benz popularized the luxury sport-utility class seven years ago with its first ML 320, its first product built in the U.S. since the early 1900s and its first consumer-oriented SUV, built to a price under $30,000. A lot of water has gone over the dam since then, and this brand new M-Class has been completely re-engineered for a new generation of luxury SUV buyers.
Instead of the original body-on-frame truck-style design, this new one has welded unibody construction with isolated front and rear subframes, a technique that emphasizes high strength and low weight, and reduces the overall height, making it easier for families to get in and out of.
It's been re-proportioned, too. The wheelbase is almost four inches longer, the body almost six inches longer, and nearly three inches wider, all the better to accommodate larger American individuals and families, and an indication that the original was simply too small. In the bargain, the coefficient of drag or Cd number, has dropped from a bricklike 0.40 to a sylphlike 0.34, on a par with many passenger cars that are much lower to the ground. This means quieter highway ride and better fuel economy.
The new look and larger size are accompanied by a new double-wishbone front suspension and a new four-link independent rear suspension. The optional side-facing rear seats of the old model are gone. This is strictly a five-seater (which makes room in the lineup for the new R-Class six-seat sports tourer.
The old Mercedes ML had one original design and one facelift during its seven-year life cycle, and this new one starts way ahead of where the old one left off in terms of physical and visceral excitement. The designers have made the front end much more aggressive, much bolder, and more interesting to look at, with ventilated grille bars, a power-dome hood design, a new approach to the bumper and lower grille element, and wild-looking new integrated headlamps.
The body shell is much more aerodynamic, with much larger and more prominent wheel arches front and rear, a new character line that rises as it goes rearward, and a heavily forward-slanting C-pillar that leads to a new trapezoidal rear side glass panel. The side window shapes go hand-in-hand with the grille, the body shell and roof angles to say to the onlooker "Hi. I'm here to kick some butt."
Scratch-resistant paint, an interesting technology, will be standard on all models, and will be welcomed by those who really do take their M-Class vehicles off the road and into the shrubbery or those who have kids who brush up against the car. Also, a new power liftgate operated by the key fob will be optional, along with a cargo organizer for the load floor.
The instrument panel, door panels, seats, and carpeting are all completely new, and they go very well with the aggressive new exterior design. There are four huge round air vents spread across the dash panel, dominated by a deeply hooded instrument cluster with sharp new graphics, and more chrome trim around the tachometer and speedometer. A central information window can be programmed to supply about as much driving and maintenance information as one driver can stand to absorb.
The steering wheel is a new four-spoke design with the top half in wood and the bottom half in leather, the two lower spokes done in brushed metal finish and a nice, thick rim that's reassuring when you're off the road. The steering wheel houses four sets of controls for information, telephone, navigation and entertainment systems. The center console is dominated by the elements of the COMAND system and a 16:9 wide-screen display which can be used for entertainment, telephone, or navigation displays.
One new element is the simple up-down-in short-stalk shifter on the right side of the steering column for P-R-N-D selection, with backup shifter buttons on the steering wheel. This change has made for a more open, more elegant and more useful center console, since the shifter has been relocated from there to the column. Power seat controls have been relocated from the door to the outboard side of the seat.
The front bucket seats are all-day comfortable, the rear seats are similarly comfortable and spacious, and all of the wood, leather, plastic and metal finishes are top-drawer, as they should be at this price. There's a lot more room inside the new M-Class as well, with the rear seat 15 mm farther back from the front seat, 35 mm more knee room, and 32 mm more elbow room than the previous model.
During several days of hard driving in the south of France, we found the all-new 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 500 an absolute hoot to drive. The V8 engine will take its 4600-pound package from 0-60 mph in less than seven seconds flat, and then settles down to a background burble by the time you reach seventh-gear overdrive. The seven-speed automatic offers a manual-shift mode and is one of the strongest and most flexible automatics ever built.
The completely revised suspension is very good at keeping the truck's attitude nice and flat in high-speed corners, and it will hop over rocks and dip into potholes as though they weren't really there. The AirMatic air suspension system we drove in France, which will be optional on U.S. models, is downright supple, which trucks aren't supposed to be. The larger standard 18-inch wheels and tires on the V8 and the power rack-and-pinion steering combined with the new steering wheel give a nice feel of the road, and quick reactions when necessary. At high speeds through mountain passes, the ML 500 leans over a little, takes a set, and then grabs the ground and turns the corners. Steering is hefty and linear.
While some critics carp about the electronically actuated and modulated Sensotronic brake system that Mercedes-Benz has been feeding gradually into all of its models over the last three years or so, we're well used to them by now, and we enjoy using their enormous power with just a little hard dab at the pedal. These are very serious brakes, and once you get used to them you will appreciate them every day for their directness and power.
Off the road, the ML 500 has two significant added features, a Downhill Speed Regulation software control that won't let you and it go any faster than about 7 mph downhill, and a Start-Off Assist that keeps the vehicle from drifting backward in Drive or forward in Reverse on steep hills. Very handy, indeed, and easy to learn.
Both versions of the new M-Class, the ML 350 and the ML 500, are rated at 5000-pound towing capacity when you order the optional Class III towing package, and we have no doubt that the ML 500 has enough torque to handle loads of that magnitude. While the ML 350 comes with 17-inch wheels and tires and the ML 500 comes with 18s, both are available with two different optional 19-inch tire and wheel packages, one set in the Appearance Package and one set of AMG wheels and high-performance tires in the Sport Package.
Since the Mercedes-Benz ML 320 popularized this class of vehicle seven years ago, others have come from Europe, Japan, and America to compete, and many of them are very, very good at what they do. But Mercedes-Benz knew they had to leapfrog all of that competition, and they have done it with this new ML, and repriced it accordingly. We don't find it as stiff and unforgiving as some of the others, or as mushy off-road as some of the others, and it's certainly not overly styled or decorated like some of the others. If you're ready to step up to a Mercedes-Benz, then this ML is ready for you. The new best-in-class.
New Car Test Drive contributor Jim McCraw filed this report from Provence, France.
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