Strengths and weaknesses:
- strong powertrains
- elegant, hi-tech interiors
- long list of options can make the price skyrocket
Sky’s the limit for new M-Class
MISSOULA, Montana - They call this Big Sky Country and it’s a good place to begin to show off the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350’s can-do abilities because of its wealth of rugged back country mountain roads and curvy highways where the posted speed limit is an adult 75 mph (120.7 km/h).
This is the vehicle with which the German automaker hopes to regain a solid second place in Canada for sales of high-end SUVs. Mercedes knows it can’t catch the Canadian-made Lexus RX 350, but has its sights set on overtaking a couple of other competitors for second spot.
And if what’s needed to do that is a combination of power and high technology in a luxurious package, then this ought to be a winner for them.
Available with either a 24-valve DOHC gas or diesel V6, this third generation M-Class is all new with improvements in performance, fuel economy and handling. Not only that, the interior has been completely redone in rich combinations of wood and leather. With unique colours such as tobacco brown and black leather, accented by burl walnut wood accents, the cabin becomes as elegant as it sounds. And, of course, it’s also safer than your own living room thanks to permanent 4Matic all-wheel drive and nine standard airbags.
First offered in the 2012 SLK350, the new 3.5-litre gas V6 has direct injection and pumps out 302 hp at 5,000 rpm and 230 lb. ft. of torque in a range between 3,500 and 5,250 rpm.
The new Bluetec turbodiesel also displaces 3.5 litres and while it doesn’t have the horsepower of the gas engine (240 hp at 3,600 rpm) it generates massive amounts of torque - 455 lb.-ft. from 1,600 to 2,400 rpm.
Both are mated to seven-speed automatic transmissions.
With the gas engine, the ML 350 is capable of sprinting from 0-100 km/h in a respectable 8.7 seconds and can go from 80-120 in 6.1. I didn’t get a chance to put the stopwatch on the diesel model. In Canada, the clean-burning diesel will be chosen by 80% of buyers - a direct reversal of the sales ratio in the U.S.
At speed, either ML is a rock of stability, aided by new electrohydraulic power steering. Curve assist control won’t be coming to Canada until the new year.
These SUVs share a platform with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee - an arrangement that dates back to the days before Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. had their quickie corporate divorce. Everything else is pure Mercedes-Benz, from the 4Matic AWD system to the drive trains, from the high quality cabin to the smoother, more elongated lines of the exterior.
Mercedes-Benz Canada says all ML 350s coming to this country will get the AMG styling treatment (with its deeper, body colour skirting) as standard equipment, which also includes power front passenger seat, parking assist, power glass sunroof, auto dimming mirrors, heated steering wheel/front seats/windshield washer system, automatic climate control and auto dimming mirrors.
A switch on the centre console allows you to select the kind of ride you want - sport or comfort. Set on sport, the vehicle has firmer shock damping and the throttle is remapped for more aggressive driving; it’s what I would choose at all times.
With Airmatic suspension (part of the Sport Package), you can get extra ground clearance for off-road adventures.
New ML 350s are built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and will be arriving at dealerships in September 2011. The off-road package, active curve system and V8 engine will not be available until early 2012. Pricing has not been finalized, but M-B spokespeople say it will be very close to 2011 V6 models, which start at $63,900.