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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.
Both gas engines come with a seven-speed automatic transmission (called the 7G-Tronic). All models also come with the next generation of Mercedes-Benz's full-time, brake-based 4ETS electronic all-wheel-drive and traction control system.
With either engine, the package of standard equipment is staggering. After all, this is a Mercedes-Benz, and they don't stint on power, luxury, or entertainment equipment in these trucks. They tried that on the first ML, customer reaction was negative, and they won't do that again.
Mercedes-Benz's renowned commitment to occupant safety means that the 2006 M-Class comes standard with ABS, ESP stability control, traction control, two-stage adaptive airbags for the driver and front passenger, curtain side airbags and adaptive belt tensioners and belt force limiters for all seating positions. A rollover sensor can activate both the belt tensioner and curtain airbags if the vehicle senses an imminent rollover. A passive tire pressure warning system is also standard.
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.