2012 Mercedes M-Class

MISSOULA, Mt — Vehicle classification doesn’t seem to be a perfect science but under the circumstances it’s probably as good as it’s going to get. However, sometimes confusion reigns. Case in point is the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV.

It doesn’t look like a truck, although it has been long classified as one and it doesn’t drive like a truck.
We recently had the opportunity to be among the first to drive the all-new, third-generation 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and did it in a setting that really highlighted its versatility, at Paws-Up Resort near Missoula, Montana.
Montana has some exceptionally good roads. It also has some challenging roads where you wouldn’t want to be sitting in the rear seat cutting diamonds. However, it doesn’t make a whit of difference to the ML; it gives a good ride no matter what the terrain. The 2012 model uses a refined version of Mercedes-Benz’s famed 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system that combines full-time drive to all four wheels with four-wheel traction control and a low range. No driver intervention is required for better handling and steering under any driving condition.
Styling-wise there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a Mercedes M-Class, nor is there any mistaking that this is an entirely new M-Class. A bold front grille holds the familiar three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star logo in the center, while a chrome skid plate curves from the front bumper up towards the grille.
A high belt line accented with stainless-steel trim with lines along the sides that appear stretched combine with a relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs. An angled C-pillar solidly distinguishes the M-Class from its competition among them the BMW X5, the Audi Q7 and the Lexus RX.
Mercedes really worked towards increasing the already-impressive safety features of the M-Class. For 2012 they offer a Lane Tracking Package ($850); included in the Lane Tracking Package is Blind Spot Assist. It lights up a warning in the rearview mirrors when an approaching vehicle enters your vehicle’s blind spot and also utters a warning if a vehicle is in your blind spot when you put on the turn signal to change lanes.
ML comes in two types: an ML350 4MATIC that’s powered by a 3.2L gasoline engine producing 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; and an ML350 BlueTEC 4Matic diesel that puts out 240 horsepower and a whopping 455 pound-feet of torque (at 1,600-2,400 rpm). Although the gasoline model has over 60 more horsepower than its diesel brethren the torque difference more than makes the diesel a driver’s car. EPA fuel estimates are 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway for the gas version and 20/25 for the diesel. Both engines are mated to a new very smooth seven-speed automatic direct select transmission.
The ML will tow 7,200 pounds and will hit 0-60 in 7.3 seconds (either version). Not bad for a 5,000-pound vehicle. With the rear seats down there’s 71 cubic feet of cargo volume.
The instrument cluster is well-positioned and large round dials are “in your face.” A 7” display is located atop the center stack. There’s an optional hard-drive-based GPS navigation system with 3-D dis[lay and a Sirius-XM feature can provide real-time traffic and weather information on the navigation map.
Audiophiles will be happy. Standard is a 100-watt system that includes eight speakers arranged in pairs. For those who like their brains scrambled there’s an optional 830-watt Harman/Kardon digital surround sound system that comes with 14 speakers – including two more mid-range speakers in the luggage compartment.
MSRP for the 2012 ML350 is the same as the outgoing model -- $48,990. There’s a ton of optional packages and stand-alone features that can really jack up the bottom line. Our test vehicle topped out at $63,555 (including $875 destination and delivery charge). (The ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC Diesel would cost $4,000-$5,000 more.) The list of standard features is plentiful, as one would expect a Mercedes-Benz to be. Availability is September, 2011.
—  Al Vinikour