Mercedes-Benz popularized the luxury sport-utility class seven years ago with its first ML 320, its first product built in the U.S. since the early 1900s and its first consumer-oriented SUV, built to a price under $30,000. A lot of water has gone over the dam since then, and this brand new M-Class has been completely re-engineered for a new generation of luxury SUV buyers.
Instead of the original body-on-frame truck-style design, this new one has welded unibody construction with isolated front and rear subframes, a technique that emphasizes high strength and low weight, and reduces the overall height, making it easier for families to get in and out of.
It's been re-proportioned, too. The wheelbase is almost four inches longer, the body almost six inches longer, and nearly three inches wider, all the better to accommodate larger American individuals and families, and an indication that the original was simply too small. In the bargain, the coefficient of drag or Cd number, has dropped from a bricklike 0.40 to a sylphlike 0.34, on a par with many passenger cars that are much lower to the ground. This means quieter highway ride and better fuel economy.
The new look and larger size are accompanied by a new double-wishbone front suspension and a new four-link independent rear suspension. The optional side-facing rear seats of the old model are gone. This is strictly a five-seater (which makes room in the lineup for the new R-Class six-seat sports tourer.
For 2005, there are only two M-Class models to choose from, the ML 350 with a brand-new four-valve-per-cylinder 3.5-liter V6 engine, and the ML 500, with the tried-and-true three-valve-per-cylinder, twin-spark 5.0-liter V8. (Later on, there will be an additional high-performance model using an AMG V8 engine, probably the new 6.3-liter naturally aspirated V8 they're working on. In calendar year 2007, the new 3.2-liter diesel V6 will be added to the ML lineup.)
Both gas engines come with a seven-speed automatic transmission (called the 7G-Tronic). All models also come with the next generation of Mercedes-Benz's full-time, brake-based 4ETS electronic all-wheel-drive and traction control system.
With either engine, the package of standard equipment is staggering. After all, this is a Mercedes-Benz, and they don't stint on power, luxury, or entertainment equipment in these trucks. They tried that on the first ML, customer reaction was negative, and they won't do that again.
Mercedes-Benz's renowned commitment to occupant safety means that the 2006 M-Class comes standard with ABS, ESP stability control, traction control, two-stage adaptive airbags for the driver and front passenger, curtain side airbags and adaptive belt tensioners and belt force limiters for all seating positions. A rollover sensor can activate both the belt tensioner and curtain airbags if the vehicle senses an imminent rollover. A passive tire pressure warning system is also standard.