The Mercedes-Benz M-Class has a new look inside and out for 2009. More significantly, a new ML320 BlueTEC joins the M-Class with state-of-the-art clean-diesel technology. That's in addition to the usual gas-powered models.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV is just the right size and is set up well for many families. It isn't so large that it's cumbersome or hard to park, but it comfortably seats five and carries plenty of stuff. As daily transportation, it doesn't feel like a truck, and it won't beat its driver or passengers up. Yet it has the potential for some fairly serious off-road adventuring, and it can tow up to 7,200 pounds. The M-Class is more than powerful enough in any of its variations. And it offers the safety equipment, luxury accoutrements, style and smooth finish expected of a Mercedes-Benz.
For 2009, a new ML320 BlueTEC joins the line (replacing the previous ML320 CDI turbo-diesel). BlueTEC is the latest clean diesel technology from Mercedes designed to meet the most stringent 50-state emissions limits, while delivering an EPA-estimated 24 mpg on the highway. Yet, like its predecessor, the 3.0-liter BlueTEC diesel V6 generates 398 pound-feet of torque, comparable to a large-displacement V8.
Also new is a lower-priced, two-wheel-drive version of the V6-powered ML350. Continuing for 2009 is the four-wheel-drive ML350, along with the V8-powered ML550 and the ultra-high performance ML63 AMG. (All of these run on gasoline.)
The ML63 AMG features a 6.2-liter V8 that generates 503 horsepower, with AMG tuning and enhancements to match all that power. Though considerably more expensive than other M-Class models, the ML63 AMG is a true high-performance machine. Its engine is hand-built by a single technician. It bursts from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, according to Mercedes, with top speed electronically limited to 155 mph. Plus, it comes with the full load of luxury features.
With 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque, the 5.5-liter ML550 reaches 60 in 5.6 seconds. It sports the same front end look as the ML63, but without all the amenities and super-performance equipment, and starts at roughly $34,000 less.
Since it first appeared for 1998, the M-Class has helped make luxury SUVs a familiar part of the automotive landscape. The second and current generation, which arrived for 2006, is larger inside and out than the original, and also aerodynamically slipperier. Still, the M-Class is strictly a five-seater. You'll want to look at the GL-Class for seven-seat accommodations in a Mercedes SUV.
The current model is built using car-like unibody construction with isolated front and rear subframes, a technique that emphasizes rigidity, decreased vibration and lowers weight. A double-wishbone front suspension and four-link independent rear suspension emphasize sedan-style dynamics. Yet with a two-range transfer case on most models, and a sophisticated control program for the full-time all-wheel-drive, the M-Class can get its driver through some tricky off-road situations. M-Class buyers will pay a premium over many other comparably equipped luxury SUVs, but those who appreciate the cache and engineering strengths of the Mercedes brand will find plenty to like here.
The M-Class sports a new face for 2009, with a larger main grille that extends deeper into a new front bumper. The air slot beneath the grille is now larger as well, and turns up at the ends like a jagged smile. A subtle step at the lower inside corner of each headlamp cluster dips down to meet the upturned ends of this opening. The fog light surrounds are bolder, and the skid plate at the bottom of the bumper is wider. In short, all of the ML's facial features (even the outside mirrors) are bigger, trading some of the previous model's smoothness for the look of enhanced aggression apparently adored by SUV buyers.
The rear bumper is re-contoured also, and now incorporates recessed red reflectors below the taillight clusters, and a stainless-steel skid plate that wraps around rectangular dual exhausts. Here, it seems, there's just plain more to look at.
As before, the V8 models have a look all their own. The new stepped headlamps are shared, but the 550's new front bumper is even deeper and more blunt. A pair of plain rectangular air slots seem to emphasize its mass more than relieve it. Front and rear, a corrugated skid plate curls up from underneath.
In profile, all ML model wheel arches loom large and prominent. There's an unmistakable character line rising front to rear, and a forward-slanting C-pillar that frames trapezoidal rear side glass.
A high-tech scratch resistant paint, embedded with thousands of flecks of ceramic, is standard. It should be welcomed by those owners who actually decide to challenge overgrown trails, or those who share their garages with kids, toys and bicycles. The Premium 1 Package includes an optional power liftgate operated with the key fob. Several cargo organizing devices are available as accessories.
The 2009 ML63 AMG is not as readily distinguished from the ML550 as in the past. The divider between the upper and lower cooling slots in its front bumper is black rather than body color, suggesting one huge opening (an aesthetic improvement); and its 20-inch wheels feature a five-spoke design with intriguing three-dimensional curves. Quad oval exhausts provide some distinction at the rear.
The interior of the M-Class has been freshened as well, although here the changes are relatively minor. The distinctive four-spoke steering wheel hub has been reshaped for a slightly rounder, more organic look; and an upholstered panel now softens the inner doors. Other changes are even more subtle: The seams in the leather seats have turned cross-wise rather than length-wise, and a flat-black surround now highlights the headlight switch.
The dashboard, door panels and seats complement the aggressive exterior design nicely. Wood, leather, plastic and metal finishes are generally top-drawer, as they should be at this price.
Four huge, round air vents spread across the dash panel, which is dominated by a deeply hooded instrument cluster with sharp graphics and prominent chrome trim around the tachometer and speedometer. A central information window between the gauges can be programmed to supply about as much driving and maintenance information as one driver can stand to absorb.
The steering wheel has a nice, thick rim that's reassuring when driving off road. We're fond of the optional steering wheel that's finished with the top half in wood and the bottom half in leather, but some drivers don't like wood or mixed materials on their wheels. Controls for information, telephone, navigation and entertainment systems are now arrayed in two circles set into the top two spokes. Wipers are stalk-mounted to the left of the column, while primary climate and audio controls are in the center stack above the console. The center stack is dominated by the elements of the COMAND system and a 6.5-inch color screen which incorporates entertainment, telephone, and navigation displays.
The COMAND system has also been revised for 2009, and now incorporates a standard in-dash, six-disc DVD / CD changer and a Bluetooth interface that allows a phone still in a pocket or purse to be operated through the car's audio system. The optional iPod/MP3 interface, Sirius Satellite Radio, and HD radio all integrate into the COMAND interface. COMAND can play tracks stored on a data CD, DVD or SD memory card. The new system can also display maps and directions for the optional hard-drive navigation system, which can be set up for Sirius Real Time Traffic and Zagat restaurant ratings.
The M-Class features an electronic gear selector that's making its way into all Mercedes models. It's an easy-to-reach short stalk on the right side of the steering column, with simple up-down movement for reverse and drive. Alternate shift buttons, which allow selection of a specific gear, are located on the back of the steering wheel hub, right where fingers wrap around the spokes. It's a good system, and eliminates the conventional gear selector from the center console, making more room available for elegant design and function in the form of an award-winning cupholder.
The front seats themselves are all-day comfortable. The rear seats in the M-Class aren't as supportive as the front seats, but they are roomy.
The ML63 AMG has heavily bolstered sport seats upholstered with Nappa leather and an Alcantara insert across the shoulder bolsters. Its entire dashboard is wrapped with leather. There's a bit more brightwork inside than in the other models. The ML63 also features a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, unique AMG instrument graphics and stainless-steel pedals with rubber studs.
Cargo space is expanded by folding the rear seat, which increases storage space from 54.7 cubic feet to 72.4 cubic feet. The rear seat folds fairly easily, and is split 60/40. The load height in back is high, as it is with many SUVs, but M-Class offers nearly as much cargo-hauling room as full-size truck-based SUVs.
The Mercedes M-Class models will do just about anything most owners demand, on road or off road. Acceleration performance varies across the model line, ranging from better than adequate in the ML320 BlueTEC and ML350 to race-like with the ML63 AMG. Ride quality on pavement is never rough, even in the more stiffly suspended ML63, which features the Airmatic air suspension as standard equipment.
The BlueTEC diesel boasts more torque than the ML550's hefty V8: 398 pound-feet, at 1600-2400 rpm; vs. 391 at 2800-4800. And it's torque, not horsepower, that gets you going and pulls trailers up hills. (Properly equipped, the BlueTEC tows the same 7,200 pounds as the ML550.)
BlueTEC delivers better fuel economy than any other M-Class model, with an EPA estimated 18 mpg city/24 mpg highway. With a 25.1-gallon tank that means a cruising range of 600 miles. For comparison, the gasoline-V6 ML350 rates 15/20 mpg city/highway (with 2WD or 4WD); the ML550, 13/18; the ML63 AMG 11/15.
Mercedes reports near-identical 0-60 mph times of 8.0 and 7.9 seconds, respectively, for the ML320 BlueTEC diesel and the ML350 gasoline V6. Yet that doesn't tell the whole story, because even last year's diesel's whopping 398 pound-feet of torque (compared with 258 pound-feet for the ML350) came across as a neck-whipping burst of acceleration. And of course turbocharging maintains power in high-altitude environs. And for this the diesel buyer gets a substantial fuel economy improvement in real-world driving. We're perfectly happy in the ML350, but if diesel fuel were readily available on our appointed rounds, we would choose the ML320 BlueTEC over the ML350.
The ML550 is more fun to drive. The 5.5-liter V8 engine will take this 2.5-ton SUV from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds, 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 it's the best automatic Mercedes has built. It's flexible, in that it kicks down to a lower gear more quickly than its predecessors, and it almost always keeps the engine in the most productive part of its power band. Yet its overdrive top gear makes for quiet high-speed cruising and better fuel economy.
During several days of hard driving in mountainous, sinuous terrain, we found the ML550 a hoot. The suspension is good at minimizing body roll in high-speed corners, and it smoothes dips and potholes well. The optional Airmatic suspension we tested can be downright supple, which trucks aren't supposed to be. The standard 19-inch wheels and tires and the power rack-and-pinion steering deliver a nice feel of the road, and quick reactions when necessary. At high speeds through mountain passes, the ML550 leans over a little, takes a set, and then grabs the ground and turns the corners.
Critics have complained with some justification about the electronically actuated and modulated Sensotronic brake system that Mercedes-Benz has been feeding gradually into all of its models over the last few years. We're getting used to them, and they'll stop the M-Class right now without much pedal effort. They've also improved considerably since they were first introduced. Yet they still don't have the smooth, linear feel of the best mechanically actuated brake systems. Nice smooth stops can be tricky without practice. We prefer the brakes in the Mercedes cars that do not have Sensotronic.
Off road, the M-Class offers the advantages of two significant features: a Downhill Speed Regulation software control that maintains the 4-12 mph downhill pace you set through the wheel controls, 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 to use.
All M-Class models are rated at a significant 7,200-pound towing capacity with the optional Class III towing package, but note the tongue weight rating may be the limiting factor. We have little doubt that three of the five, including the BlueTEC diesel, would be up for the job. (The diesel generates as much torque as a large displacement V8.) We'd have some doubts about the gasoline V6 in the ML350, however. If towing a substantial load were a regular part of our routine, we'd look at the ML320 BlueTEC or the ML550.
We've driven the ML63 AMG and it certainly has appeal: a people hauler to do battle with Porsche 911s in the stoplight derby or blast through big sweeping curves much faster than decorum or good sense might suggest. The ML63 is fast, dashing from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, and, with the torque of a large V8 and the high-revving character of a sports car engine, it can be fun to drive. But it's also big and heavy, so don't think sports car. Through the twisties where we sampled it, changing directions quickly and often, the ML63 AMG is not exactly fun. Its massive tires mean plenty of grip. The steering is fairly quick for such a hefty machine, but also quite light, and the package conspires to feel twitchy, almost unsettling.
The Mercedes-Benz M-Class offers a nice balance. It's not as stiff and unforgiving as some SUVs, nor as mushy on and off road as others. It has reasonable off-road capability and good towing capacity, but it's never a chore to drive during the more mundane daily tasks most drivers will undertake. Its choice of four engines is a plus, allowing owners to tailor priorities from high mileage to high performance.
New Car Test Drive contributor Jim McCraw filed this report from Provence, France. John F. Katz commented on styling revisions for 2009.
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