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.