Mercedes moves quickly ahead with new 2006 M-Class

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We liked the original Mercedes M-class sport utility vehicle.

It performed as a luxury mid-sized SUV was expected to perform with decent though not brilliant performance in its base V-6 engine and satisfying power from its V-8 option. Decent on-road manners and a modicum of off-road prowess seemed about right for an upscale vehicle that seldom left the pavement. And maybe best of all for the suburban crowd, it had a car-like ride.

But we couldn’t abide the M-Class ML, which hit the showrooms in late 1997 as a 1998 model, because in our eyes it looked too much like a minivan, too much like a box. It was styling that has turned us off for the past eight years; but it is styling that has turned us back on for 2006.

The second-generation ML has arrived and it has been muscled up with a distinctive wedge shape and a considerably raked windshield. It is definitely sleeker and sportier than the vehicle it replaces. It can still be recognized as a Mercedes, but the box has been creased and shaped and sculpted into a very pleasing hunk of sport utility.

Of course there’s much more to the new ML than exterior styling, but it grabbed our attention and put us in a very favorable frame of mind for evaluating our ML350 test vehicle.

Mercedes has apparently conceded that the M-class will not unseat its G-class stablemate or the Hummer H2 for rugged off-the-pavement duty and has replaced the body-on-frame architecture found in truck-based SUVs for unibody construction, a one-piece frame that gives it car-like road manners.

A revised four-wheel independent suspension, a slightly lower ride height, a 3.8-inch longer wheelbase and four-inch wider front and rear track add to the SUV’s handling prowess and ride quality.

The unibody is vastly stiffer in torsional and bending rigidity than its predecessor. Translated, the new ML is like a rock, to borrow another manufacturer’s catch phrase. Two things you won’t find in the new ML that were available in the previous edition — a two-speed transfer case and a third-row seat.

The transfer case has been replaced with full-time all-wheel drive with electronic traction control that varies torque front-to-rear and side-to-side. Mercedes says the ML will get a transfer case as part of an off-road package later in the production cycle. For now, a center-console-mounted “Off Road” button alters ABS, traction control; throttle tip-in and transmission shift points for ease of maneuvering in tough spots.

The true off road version should be available for the 2007 model year.

Even though the new ML was stretched six inches, the third row seat was eliminated. We applaud this move because three seats in mid-sized vehicles make living conditions too cramped. However, Mercedes will build a stretched version of the platform that will include a third row that should be ready near the end of 2006.

Owners who regularly carry two or three passengers will be happy to know that Mercedes used the extra body length for people rather than cargo. The storage area has actually been slightly reduced, with the extra space allocated to the passenger area. While the cargo area — still a solid 29 cubic feet behind the second-row seat — is down about five cubic feet from the 2005 ML, you’ll never notice it unless you pack your SUV to the rafters.

What you will notice is that new stretch-out room for second-row passengers. There is ample space for four adults to ride in comfort, and if that means robbing a couple of cubic feet from the cargo hold, you won’t hear complaints from us.

With the rear seats folded, cargo area expands to 72 cubic feet compared to 81 in the previous edition.

Mercedes has also dropped a new 24-valve V-6 into the ML350 and it provides all the performance most people need and desire. The new 3.5-liter engine develops 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque compared to the previous 3.7-liter engine which pumped out 232 horsepower.

The extra performance provided by the new engine comes with better gas mileage, too, rated at 16 city and 20 highway compared to the previous engine which had a 15-18 rating.

A major automobile magazine recorded a 7.1-second 0-to-60 run, which we find a little fast. They must have had a great car on a perfect day.

But, nevertheless, the ML is a solid performer. And a measure of some of that can be attributed to a new seamless 7-speed automatic transmission.

For slightly better numbers, the ML can be purchased with a 302-horsepower V-8. But there’s about a $10,000 premium for moving up, and we can’t think of a reason for spending the extra cash for the ML500 unless you have that kind of disposable income that is burning a hole in your pocket.

Mercedes did not overlook the interior while designing the eye-appealing exterior. The dashboard and center console have been freshened with brighter pieces, chrome accents, attractive two-pod instrument display, a generous helping of bird’s eye maple wood and — believe it or not (this is a German vehicle) — two large cupholders between the front seats.

The most striking difference is the elimination of the traditional center-console transmission shifter. In its place is a stubby electronic shifter mounted to the steering column. Much like the one found in the BMW 7-Series, you tap it up or down for reverse or drive.

The hardest thing getting used to is pressing a button on the end of the shifter to gain “park.”

In addition to scads of space, rear-seat passengers are treated to large cupholders in the fold-down center armrest, reading lights and climate controls mounted on the rear of the center console.

The 2006 ML350 starts at $40,470. That price brings the usual creature comforts associated with a fine car. In addition, it brings solid safety with front side airbags and rear side window airbags, all-wheel drive with traction control and four-wheel four-channel ABS.

Our test car had several options, some we like such as Sirius Satellite Radio, and some we could do without such as the DVD navigation system, which we still think is too hard to use in the Mercedes with mapping software that is woefully out of date when compared to Japanese and American counterparts.

The extras, including a rear-seat entertainment package and a sunroof, brought the price of our test car to $48,825.

Mercedes has done some very good things in bringing the M-Class up to true competitive levels. The new ML is a giant advancement in styling, handling, performance and comfort. And if you can forgo some of the optional goodies, it can be purchased at a competitive price as well.