The 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is all new, with ML350 4MATIC gasoline and ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC diesel versions available.
Mercedes-Benz invented the luxury SUV, with the 1998 ML320. Now comes the third generation, with a new 3.5-liter engine. The '98 ML320 made 215 horsepower and got 17/21 miles per gallon, according to the NewCarTestDrive.com archives.
By comparison, the all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 makes 302 horsepower and gets 17/22 mpg. That's substantially more power without sacrificing fuel economy. Using the Consumer Price Index, today's ML350 costs about 10 percent less than the comparable model did in 1998. The 2012 ML350 has technical capabilities, features and quality that the 1998 model only dreamed of. Too much to list, as they say.
The 2012 ML350 third-generation model is about the same size as the 2011 second-generation version. Made in Alabama, the 2012 ML350 is 1 inch longer, 0.5 inch wider, 0.75 inch lower, and 22 pounds heavier than the previous model.
The 2012 ML350's new 3.5-liter direct-injection V6 is smoother, more powerful, and more fuel efficient than the 2011 version. It's mated to a new 7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. We found the new 3.5-liter gas engine exceptionally smooth, and it provides rapid acceleration. The new 7-speed automatic is sweet, at least until you try to tell it what do.
The new ML350 looks lower and wider, even though the eye can't discern those fractions of an inch. Designers have added distinctive and powerful styling to the front and side views. Muscle-car hood. The back isn't bad but it could be a Kia.
The M-Class interior has been upgraded for 2012 (and it's not easy to upgrade a Mercedes interior). The seat cushioning is just right. More bolstering would be helpful going around corners, but lower bolsters are easier for getting in and out and for unloading children. The standard MB-Tex upholstery is as good as leather, but the optional stitched black leather is elegant. Walnut touches come standard, and aluminum trim says class. The ML350 is extremely quiet inside. The interior is well laid out and the rear seat is roomy enough.
The standard equipment list for 2012 is long, longer than last year, but the options list is eye-opening. You can spend many thousands of dollars in options, and might need to, to get the equipment a Mercedes is expected to have.
It's designed to be extremely safe, with nine airbags, crumple zones and steel-reinforced cabin, and it has a sensitive Electronic Stability Program. But we noted a big blind spot over the driver's right shoulder, caused by the C-pillar.
The ride is totally smooth. We tried and tried, on Montana back roads including gravel, to find a bump the suspension couldn't smooth out, to no avail. The ride is solid, steady and comfortable in every situation. The ML350 doesn't like fast or quick cornering, not even with the $5,150 Dynamic Handling Package.
All 2012 ML350s come standard with 4Matic all-wheel drive. The sophisticated AWD system maintains a 50/50 torque split on dry pavement, but can send 100 percent of the torque to one wheel, if necessary. Three wheels deep in mud, one on dry land, and the Benz should drive right out.
The ML350 BlueTEC features the latest diesel technology, with a 3.0-liter V6 diesel engine making 240 horsepower and a gigantic 455 pound-feet of torque at 1600 rpm, rated for towing up to 7200 pounds, same rating as the gas engine because of the chassis, but with far less engine effort. The BlueTEC is estimated at 20 city and 25 highway mpg.
The BlueTEC model has everything in common with the ML350 4Matic except the engine, which makes it feel like it has nothing in common. Everything happens slower in the BlueTEC, making the vehicle feel stodgy. The ride is as smooth, but acceleration isn't. Redline is 4200 rpm instead of 6200, the transmission shifts at different times, and slower. The BlueTEC is high-tech diesel and old-school Mercedes, nothing wrong with that.
The ML350 4MATIC ($49,865) uses the new 3.5-liter V6, and the ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC ($51,365) uses the 3.0-liter V6 diesel. Both come standard with power everything, from sunroof to liftgate, leather-like upholstery and wood trim, Bluetooth, 7-inch display screen, shift paddles, LED taillamps, aluminum roofrails, and 19-inch alloys.
Standard safety equipment includes nine airbags, ABS with brake assist, ESP, LED daytime running lights and taillamps, tire pressure monitor, ATTENTION ASSIST, and ADAPTIVE BRAKE.
Available safety equipment includes a Lighting Package ($1290) with bi-Xenon headlamps, adaptive high beam assist, and corner illumination; Lane Tracking Package ($850) with blind spot assist and lane keeping assist; and Driver Assistance Package ($2950) that turns the warnings active, and at speeds below 45 mph will apply the brakes when you're headed for a crash: 2.6 seconds before impact it beeps at you, at 1.6 seconds it applies 40 percent of the brakes, and at 0.6 seconds it slams them on.