By on April 22, 2012

While Lexus generally gets credit for pioneering the car-like luxury SUV, the 1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class actually beat the RX to market by a year. Unlike the car-based RX, the original ML was too much a truck and not enough a quality vehicle. Substantial revisions were made with the 2006, and again this model year. In its third iteration, is the ‘Bama-built Benz now what it should have been from the start?

The 1998 ML320 was so plainly styled—the fascias weren’t even body color—that various Korean knock-offs looked more upscale. The 2006’s exterior was a major improvement, with the sophistication and detailing appropriate to a $40,000+ vehicle. It was also far more attractive. The 2012’s shell dials the sophistication up another notch, but isn’t as pretty. Mercedes-Benz’s current design language is busier and less fluid, and the 2012’s chunkier front fenders throw the proportions off. You’ll find a more svelte snout on competitors that must package an engine ahead of the axle. But does this matter? The same criticisms apply to all of Mercedes-Benz’s 2008+ redesigns, yet in each case, public reaction has been highly positive.

The 2012 ML’s interior doesn’t seem like much of an upgrade—until you jump from it into a 2011. Then the new interior seems significantly more solid, more sophisticated, and simply nicer—even with MB-Tex (i.e. vinyl) on the seats. It doesn’t hurt that many people will mistake MB-Tex for standard-grade leather until it fails to crack. The second-generation interior was itself a huge improvement over the downright chintzy original, so the ML has come a long way in this area.

The 2012’s exterior dimensions are almost identical to the 2011’s, while its interior dimensions are actually tighter, with an inch less headroom, an inch-and-a-half less shoulder room, and three-and-a-half inches less total legroom. The original M-Class was about as roomy as the new one (and even offered a kid-sized third row as an option) despite being over eight inches less lengthy and three inches narrower. Why is the 2012 so much less space efficient? Perhaps to improve safety and infuse the vehicle with the bank-vault solidity people expect from a Mercedes (but which was lacking from the original ML). The availability of the GL for those who want more room might also play a role.

But official specs can be deceiving. From the driver’s seat, the 2012 actually seems like a significantly larger, somewhat roomier vehicle. Credit a more distant windshield, a more massive instrument panel, and other, more subtle tweaks to the interior design. Rear seat room remains easily sufficient for adults. One thing hasn’t changed: Mercedes seats remain firmer than the luxury car norm.

For some reason, Mercedes had the odd idea that people would use its first modern SUV as an SUV (“crossover” wasn’t yet in the lexicon). So they gave it body-on-frame construction and a standard two-speed transfer case. BoF went away, and the low range gear became optional with the 2006 redesign, disappearing in the United States for 2012. The 3.5-liter gasoline V6 does gain direct injection this year, for a power bump from 268 to 302 horsepower. Good thing, as curb weight is up about 250 pounds, to a hefty 4,753. The off-road-ready original weighed a quarter-ton less. The transmission remains a seven-speed automatic and (unlike in the smaller GLK) all-wheel-drive remains standard.

Given the typical mission of midsize SUVs, the V6 feels plenty powerful, and even sounds good at high rpm. Despite the power and weight increases, EPA ratings are actually up a bit, from 16 city / 21 highway to 17/22. The 215-horsepower 1998 managed only 15/20. Still, these are incremental fuel economy improvements. For better numbers, get the 240-horsepower (455 lb-ft, vs. 273) diesel (which returns 20/27 mpg) or wait for a more efficient gas engine.

Perhaps because of its more even weight distribution and tighter damping, the ML does feels more balanced and poised than a Lexus RX, while gliding down the road about as smoothly and quietly. Some German cars continue to pound across road imperfections. Even shod with low-profile 19-inch rubber this isn’t one of them. But, like most other Mercedes, no one will mistake the ML for a driver’s car. Its ultra-light steering communicates nothing. A $5,150 Dynamic Handling Package (not on the tested vehicle) includes height-adjustable air springs, adaptive dampers, and active stabilizer bars. These no doubt reduce body roll, and perhaps they also lend the ML a sportier feel. But they also tend to be problem areas in Mercedes (based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey), and an ML equipped with them won’t get the kids to school or the goods home from the mall appreciably faster.

Mercedes created the M-Class primarily for the American market—and you know what happens to German cars when they’re developed with Americans in mind. But at least the SUV’s lesser build was reflected in a lesser price. The all-wheel-drive 1998 ML320’s $34,545 base sticker undercut that of a rear-wheel-drive E320 wagon by $12,500. Very odd, considering that Detroit got hooked on SUVs because they could be sold for much higher prices than station wagons could. Over the years, M-Class prices have risen faster than E-Class prices—the ML350 now starts at $49,865. This seems justified, as materials and build quality are now roughly the same between the two lines. The SUV will still cost you about $7,500 less than the wagon. Add $3,200 for a Premium Package that includes nav, a rearview camera, auto-dimming mirrors, and memory for the driver. A Lexus RX runs about $7,500 less, a BMW X5 about the same (based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool).

For Mercedes-Benz, the third time seems to be the charm. The 2012 redesign removes the M-Class farther from its subpar origins. Even compared to the already much-improved second-generation model, the new one looks and feels more substantial and sophisticated. Now optimized for on-road driving, the ML outhandles the Lexus RX, while riding about as well. Exciting? Without AMG power under the hood, not in the slightest. But thoroughly pleasant, and very much what buyers in this segment are looking for. The BMW X5 and Infiniti FX are more fun to drive. The ML outsells both put together.

Eric Wheeler at Mercedes-Benz of Novi (MI) provided the vehicle. He can be reached at 248-426-9600.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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55 Comments on “Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350...”


  • avatar
    Wheeljack

    I really don’t understand the appeal of these other than badge snobbery when you consider the JGC can be had fully loaded (Overland Summit) for less and it’s every bit as luxurious and arguably less overstyled inside and out than this thing.

    • 0 avatar
      hifi

      Because not everyone wants to drive a Jeep. If most people had a choice, they’ probably prefer the Mercedes.

      • 0 avatar
        Wheeljack

        And again, only because of badge snobbery. If you stripped the badging off of both vehicles and let people sit in them and drive them, I think the Jeep would come out the clear winner.

        Life is so much better when you stop worrying about what other people think of your choices.

      • 0 avatar
        Luke42

        Jeep vs. Mercedes is tough call. I don’t like either brand.

        Mercedes drivers cut me off with reckless abandon, and don’t seem to care. I don’t want to be associated with that. Also, I haven’t heard anything that suggests Mercedes cars have a reliability improvements to go with their high prices.

        When I test-drove a jeep a few years ago, all of the marketing materials informed me of how great it would be to join the cult of Jeep. I want a car, not a cult membership.

        If I had to choose between the two, I’d probably choose the Jeep. But, fortunately, I don’t have to choose between the two, and I chose something else.

        I’m not about to buy a car because of a brand, but I sure will take a car off of my list because I don’t like a brand.

        P.S. I do like that Jeep offers some diesel options. That why I showed up for a test drive in the first place. Alas, the Liberty that I test drove got worse mileage on diesel than the pickup truck that I had at the time got on gasoline. The salesman gleefully told me how much the Liberty weighed (using the gross weight figures, than curb weight), which sure didn’t help anything. I looked up curb weight when I got home, and I still can’t see why the Liberty’s curb weight was 1000lbs more than my Ranger. No sale. I want to love Jeep’s diesel options, but until they deliver the MPG, I don’t really see the point.

      • 0 avatar
        nickoo

        Sales numbers blow that idea out of the water.

      • 0 avatar
        probert

        Your use of the word “prefer” is wrong. I noemally don’t mention this stuff but I think you’re using it to further imply the klasyness of Mercedes over trailer park jeep. Bur “preferring” doesn’t cost anything so it’s eihther preferred or not.

        This type of word usage reminds me of “pre-owned” – oof.

    • 0 avatar
      onyxtape

      As a former owner of the JGC, I would pick even the worst-quality last-in-class ‘Bama-manufactured MB over the JGC. I knew 2 other people who had the JGC in approximately the same model years, and none survived more than 40,000 miles without some catastrophic powertrain failure. And we take good care of our cars.

      That said – the ML line is certainly crap for this price range. Has there ever been another MB line with a steeper downward trajectory in depreciation? We have a janitor lady who drives an old ML320 at my work, and another low-level accounting employee as well.

      • 0 avatar
        quoteunquote

        What year did you and the people you knew have? I’m interested in the new JGC redesign (2011+) so I’d be curious to know. Based on what I’ve seen on the two major Jeep forums, they don’t seem to have any major reliability issues — yet. That being said TrueDelta shows for the 2011s substantially more repair trips than average but in the notes it says the common problems are with the optional air suspension and sunroof rattles. But if I were to buy a JGC I wouldn’t be getting either, regardless of whether or not they were problematic.

        Keep in mind too that the new JGC is built by the new Chrysler, so while past JGCs may have been poorly built that doesn’t necessarily mean the new ones are too. I suppose only time will tell though.

      • 0 avatar

        Our latest data suggest that the 2012 also has fewer problems than the 2011. If you got a 2012 with neither of those features there’s no reason to expect problems.

      • 0 avatar
        zerofoo

        My anecdotal experience was the exact opposite of yours.

        I still own a 2004 JGC with 134,000 miles on the clock and it’s still a great vehicle. Sure, the motor clatters a bit in cold weather and the rear axle seals seem to last about 40,000 miles, but it has been a fantastic vehicle since we got it in ’04.

        I will buy another when this one finally dies. I may even fix it and keep it as a third snow-day vehicle. I like it that much. I’ve driven the new one, and I simply love it – nice interior, and very nice ride. The new one also seems to do OK off-road in my limited experience.

        My cousin’s 2004 ML350, on the other hand has been a constant source of high-dollar repairs. She is finally getting rid of the thing in the next month or so. Every time she has a problem with the thing she walks out with a $1000 repair bill. By contrast my ’04 JGC is dirt cheap to fix.

        Both cars have been well taken care of, yet the Benz seems to be a money pit. Further I think the Benz’s brakes and handling are inferior to the Jeep.

        I’m also not a German hater – my other car is a VW GTI. I tend to like German cars.

        -ted

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        I agree, really whats a Benz when the fricking janitor has one from the last ten years.

      • 0 avatar
        onyxtape

        The JGC I’m talking about are late 90’s / early 2000’s. Complete transmission failures, head gaskets, and get this – a disintegrated timing chain.

        I’m not buying another Chrysler product until I see 10 solid years of reliability.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Since a JGC is a 164 chassis (Last gen ML) designed to be built cheaper than the MB then you have your answer.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        The Jeep is meant to sell at a lower price, but the only JGC that has chassis commonality with the M-class is the current one, and it had the W166 platform before any Mercedes-Benz did.

    • 0 avatar
      Thinx

      “The all-wheel-drive 1998 ML320’s $34,545 base sticker undercut that of a rear-wheel-drive E320 wagon by $12,500. Very odd”

      Not really surprising. The answer is in demographics. The E-class Wagon typically sells to a MUCH wealthier crowd than the SUV.

      Put another way, the E-Wagon is targeted at the “taking the Afghan hounds to Pebble Beach” set, whereas the ML is for “taking the kids to a soccer match and then for the 10% discount sale at Old Navy”.

  • avatar
    Trend-Shifter

    This Mercedes ML350 looks exactly like a Ford Explorer or a Chevy Equinox.
    So my question is: What differentiates this Mercedes ML350 from the pack?

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      A badge informing your neighbors that you don’t sweat an $800 monthly payment.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        Well put.

      • 0 avatar
        Thinx

        “A badge informing your neighbors that you don’t sweat an $800 monthly payment.”

        Generally, Mercedes drivers don’t give a f**k what other people think of their cars (or of them, for that matter).

        Although, I can believe that has changed now with the lower-end C/GL/ML class, which seems to be marketed to a different sort of buyer. I remember reading a few years ago that a lot of MBZ were sold to cash buyers – no financing or monthly payments. Would be interesting to see if the move downmarket has changed that as well.

    • 0 avatar

      More solid feel, better chassis, higher grade interior materials, tons of little features that most people would never think to ask for, but that some owners might appreciate having (and would miss in their absence).

      • 0 avatar
        Trend-Shifter

        Thanks for the reply.

        I do like the interior, especially the seats.
        The exterior is not unique in this segment, but it does look better than their previous SUV’s.

        I bet it will sell well at this price point for being from a respected German blood-line.

    • 0 avatar
      quoteunquote

      I don’t think the Explorer looks anything like it. The Equinox admittedly has more similarities but I disagree that the ML looks “exactly” like it — it’s still pretty easy to tell that the ML is an ML and the Equinox is an Equinox even from far away.

      • 0 avatar

        Some people (even many people) don’t notice the differences those of us who are really into cars notice. Even those of us who notice differences with one type or era of car don’t with others.

      • 0 avatar
        Trend-Shifter

        Cut & paste the entire link to see Ford Explorers at the Ford website. Click on the 2nd picture with the white Explorer.

        http://www.ford.com/suvs/explorer/2012/gallery/photos/?searchid=65126314|2096246554|147401455

        Look at the character line just below the door handles and at the lower doors.
        Now take a gander at the “C” pillar and roofline.

        I think a person that understands cars looks at things like that and people that do not understand cars just look at the grille and the emblem.

  • avatar
    tced2

    Speaking of the Jeep, aren’t the Jeep Grand Cherokee/Dodge Durango closely related to this vehicle? The basic structure was reportedly developed in the Diamler Chrysler time.
    If they are related, we can debate who contributed most? Diamler? Jeep division of Chrysler?

    • 0 avatar

      The official line is that they ended up not being closely related, as the split occurred not long after development started.

      • 0 avatar
        PenguinBoy

        @Michael Karesh –
        I know that almost nobody is going to cross shop a Jeep with a Benz, but how would you compare the two? I seem to recall you commenting that the German trucks had a slightly more “solid” feel to them compared with a JGC, is that still the case with the revised ML?

        The interior of a loaded JGC seems to be a category up from it’s direct competitors such as the 4Runner and Pathfinder, it would be interesting to see how it compares to the ML.

      • 0 avatar

        The current JGC feels pretty solid. The main thing it needs is a better transmission, which it will eventually get. With the V6 + 5-speed automatic acceleration up to 30 feels sluggish. The Jeep also feels softer and heavier, because it is. Part of this is because it’s still trying to perform well both on and off the road, and is the clear winner if the latter is a factor.

      • 0 avatar
        tced2

        And the 5-speed transmission is a Mercedes unit leftover from the Diamler Chrysler thing. How appropriate.

  • avatar
    eldo500

    This car is great for folks who want something incredibly bland, yet want to spend way too much money on it.

  • avatar
    Toucan

    In Europe this one is to be had with the 200HP 4 cylinder biturbo diesel. 30 MPG combined. A bit better than 22 MPG HWY here.

    The previous model was a much better design. The new front end looks gorgeous on the CLS, not so much on the SK(K) and here.

    TrueDelta produced USD 14k difference after adjusting for features. But then I saw a comment there about GC terrible depreciation. As a cheaper car, it will be purchased by those who will be more affected by rising gas prices so it makes sense. If depreciation is going to reduce the real price gap to 10k in the future, I will understand those going for the Benz.

  • avatar
    geggamoya

    I’ve driven the 2012 ML350CDI on an ice-track. It was… nice. Chassis, materials, engine, transmission, everything was nice. Also quite boring but then i suppose that’s the point, more or less. No one is expecting it to be exciting in any way.

    The E350CDI 4-matic was similar but slightly more nice as it’s lower and lighter, and with delicate steering and throttle input it could be held in a nice slide even with the ESP on. Trying to fool the ESP was the most fun part of that car.

  • avatar

    “…yet in each case, public reaction has been highly positive.”

    I had to take my car in to Manhattan Mercedes Benz for scheduled service and I spent some time looking at the new cars to market.

    I love these car’s exterior design, but, I hate the new interiors. They’ve made everything more like the W220 – a car which I never ever liked. They should have made all of their new cars as “clean” as the W221.

    Here in NYC, this is the official car of the “upper middle class/ wealthy” soccer mom. They should make it more friendly to them.

  • avatar
    Mandalorian

    I do not like the MB-Tex seats. That is a reason I chose a Q7 over a Gl. They are for the kind of people that prefer fake boobs to real ones.

    I strongly agree with buying a Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland Summit over this, it makes much more sense.

    • 0 avatar
      Marko

      “MB-Tex seats…are for the kind of people that prefer fake boobs to real ones”…definitely TTAC’s comment of the day.

    • 0 avatar

      I am willing to bet 80% (or more) of Benz buyers have NO IDEA that MB-Tex isn’t leather because they assume they are getting leather when they pay this much – or because they assume that there is only one option to cloth seats.

      • 0 avatar
        Mark MacInnis

        Sometimes that can work to one’s advantage. I bought my used E350, which has M-Tex….which I like, by the way. The Rube dealer I bought it from had no idea. He’d advertised it as ‘leather interior’….when I went into a rant about “You guys have no idea what you are doing. Ima take my business elsewhere.”…they got all nervous.

        $3 grand worth of price knockoff later, I’m out the door with the best ‘leather’ interior I’ve never had….

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      My wife drives a 2008 ML550 AMG. With the hateful MB-Tex upholstery, unfortunately. You are 100% right, an Overland will beat it hands down luxury-wise.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Reading this article actually made me think about tracking down an early ML320 or ML430 for its dual-range transfer case and pre-sell-out Germanic seriousness, but then I remembered that all the differentials used were open and traction was managed with electronic brake application. It was already too late for Mercedes-Benz.

  • avatar
    detlump

    I hadn’t realize the previous model’s IP looks like a GMC Acadia. Or is it the other way around?

    The problem with these vehicles is they all look the same, that’s why the badges have to be the size of dinner plates.

    Do Mercedes still come with built-in massive depreciation? It seems like they depreciate about as fast as a gallon of milk.

    I’d consider leasing of one these but never buying. Nothing scarier than a German car out of warranty. Maybe a Land Rover.

  • avatar
    John

    Seriously – does this vehicle need a tachometer?
    Actually, I hope there’s a soccer mom somewhere who has a high rpm stall converter put in and challenges new 5.0 Mustangs at stop lights
    :)

    • 0 avatar

      I personally find a tach useful in everything–it gives me a better sense of how hard I’m pushing a car. If I want to maximize fuel economy, I try to keep rpm below 2,000 (if at all possible), and adjust my right foot accordingly.

  • avatar
    highdesertcat

    I bought my wife a 2012 JGC Overland Summit with the Pentastar V6. She had cross shopped the ML, Acadia, Enclave and Highlander but fell in love with the ‘styling’ of the JGC.

    Add to that the HUGE wheels of the Jeep, the legendary Jeep 4×4 capability and the two-tone leather interior, what’s not to like? Truly a ladies’ CUV with competent off-road capability.

    Another thing about favoring the JGC is its choice of engines and 4X4 drive trains, starting at $28K and going up all the way to $64K. That’s a wide range of power trains and options.

    The Pentastar V6 is better and stronger than her 2008 Highlander 3.5, but if that is too lame for some there is the 5.7, and even an SRT8 with a monster motor in it. All come with 4X4 choices. Good stuff!

    For those like me that are weary of Jeep’s decades-long track record of unreliability, (I have owned several used Jeeps), I am pleasantly surprised that with 6500+ miles on the odo we have not had to take it in for warranty work yet. Only other vehicle we ever owned that had no problems at all was her 2008 Highlander.

    Maybe Chrysler, first under Daimler and now under Fiat, finally got the reliability thing right, and I hope this JGC will be as good as her Highlander has been.

    But if not, before the warranty runs out in three years, we’ll trade it for something new.

    I have two personal favorites in the JGC line, were I to buy one for myself, and that is a 5.7 in Deep Cherry Red with the Black Cloth interior and HUGE wheels. It’s absolutely gorgeous! A friend of ours bought one when her Murano’s CVT went south for the second time in five years.

    The second favorite is the high-gloss all-black SRT8 with the black interior and the HUGE wheels. If that doesn’t tell the world that you have arrived, nothing will.

    But, I’m a truck person, so a JGC for me is not in the works, ever.

  • avatar
    Acubra

    I wonder when forward cameras will be required due to the ever-growing height of the hood line? The worst-proportioned Mercedes ever.

    And the interior, while times better than any of the previous MLs, is definitely made to appeal to girlfriends of Russian and Chinese oligarchs first and foremost.

  • avatar
    plunk10

    How did this turn into a debate over the reliability between ML350 and JGC?

    I’d skip them both and buy an SUV with a more reliable reputation, such as perhaps an Acura MDX, the cheaper Lexus, or even maybe the new Infiniti JX.

    People frequently say a new model is more reliable than older models, but that is because the new model is untested. I’d rather go with a vehicle whose older models have better withstood the test of time and mileage.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      “People frequently say a new model is more reliable than older models, but that is because the new model is untested.”

      That is because of the engineering, research and development that goes into any new car because of the historical data.

      Most new vehicles are better and more reliable than their predecessors, but the real world can often reveal, rather quickly, that no vehicle is perfect.

      Things break down, wear out or need to be otherwise replaced, some faster than others. That’s why manufacturers give warranties.

      And if you take your new vehicle to the dealership for routine servicing and maintenance, you may never know that your on-board computers have been re-flashed with the latest and greatest firmware upgrades.

  • avatar
    chiefmonkey

    I dunno, Mercedes latest redesigns look kinda bloated, like the company is running out of ideas. Not a huge fan of the new SL or this-the cars seem to be losing their elegance.

  • avatar
    jaron

    Before you criticize MB-Tex, take a look at the seats in a decently maintained 1985 300D, and then look at cars with equally old leather seats. MB-Tex lasts, at least if it’s still the same stuff.

  • avatar
    Richard

    I’m a Lexus salesperson at one of the top 5 Lexus dealers in the US about 30 minutes from NYC, and in the past 20years at this dealership I’ve sold well over 2000 RX’s many to FORMER ML owners and none of them would ever consider buying any Mercedes after their experience with the RX. Considering,reliability,resale,and value (MSRP $49500) with everything and Real leather it’s a no-brainer. Granted there are alot of fools that need that HOOD ORNAMENT…

    • 0 avatar
      Contrarian

      Well, we wouldn’t expect a top Lexus salesman to say a lot of nice things about Mercedes. And I have real leather in my Hyundai. And I don’t need an L on the hood or a star.

      However, having said all that, these vehicles just aren’t my segment and I find all of them vary from “pretty ugly” to “hideous”.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      People buy that hood ornament to feel special, but I think anymore Mercedes and Lexus are no longer ‘special’ brands as at least Mercedes once was. There are 25yos maxing out their crappy credit leasing Lexi, Benzes, Bimmers and whatnot. So if I’m in my 40s or 50s (im 30 btw) and I just bought an RX350 from you, say I drive down the street seeing ‘kids’ driving the same thing, I’m not going to feel special or elite. This is a good bit of the reason to buy a Lexus over a Toyota, or *gasp* a non Japanese car altogether! The Japanese who chase volume will end up going down the road of GM. In 1960 a Cadillac was on par with a Rolls Royce, partially because it was truly the pinnacle of American automobile excellence and was purposely produced in limited quantities. In 2010, its an Opel and in V form, an Opel with a lead foot. In 1990 what was a Lexus, perhaps on par with Mercedes (well the LS400 was). Today? Just an upscale Toyota still made in Japan.

      • 0 avatar
        Richard

        If you need a car to feel SPECIAL or ELITE, then you need some serious help. Thank God our clients are secure enough to drive a Lexus. I’ll bet you’ve got a few GOLD CHAINS that you put on before you try to PICK-UP chicks.

      • 0 avatar
        Mark MacInnis

        Ahem…..Lexus “Gold package” much?

        If you need to feel special by putting Gold Bling on your emblems, you have bigger issues to deal with…


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