The Mercedes-Benz M-Class, now in its third generation, is a mid-size luxury SUV that counts the BMW X5, Lexus RS350 and Cadillac SRX as some of its key competitors. Designed when Daimler still owned Chrysler, the perennially hot-selling M-Class shares platform components with the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Mercedes recently expanded the M-Class model range with the addition of the V8-powered ML550 as well as the high-performance ML63 AMG. The lineup also includes the ML350 BlueTEC, which caters to efficiency-minded buyers with a turbodiesel motor that delivers 25 mpg on the highway.
The exterior styling of the current M-class harkens back to the look of the original model, which debuted in 1997 and was an overnight sales success. The front fascia, though, is inspired by Mercedes-Benz's latest design language, with a jutting-out grille and swept-back headlamps. From the side, angular lines and a blacked-out D-pillars contribute to a modern appearance. From the rear, the tail lamps are almost car-like, which gives the M-Class the appearance that it is smaller than it is.
The M-Class is offered with V6 and V8 powerplants, both of which come standard with Mercedes' 4MATIC all-wheel drive system. With a 3.5-liter V6, the gas-burning ML350 puts out 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Those looking for a bit more scoot in their sport-ute can opt for the twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8, which produces 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque.
Fuel economy is rated at 17/22 mpg and 15/20 mpg for the ML350 and ML550 models, respectively.
Inside, a sporty, four-spoke steering wheel frames a hooded twin-gauge instrument cluster, while to the left a seven-inch screen display displays entertainment options. Mercedes' iDrive-like COMAND system is fitted as standard. The M-Class's head unit comes with a ten-gigabyte music storage hard drive, SD card slot, and an MP3 compatible CD /DVD player as well as a Bluetooth interface for wireless audio streaming and hands-free phone operation. Eucalyptus wood trim is standard, but interior upgrades such as leather-like covering for the dashboard and various trims including dark poplar wood, aluminum and matte-finish ash wood are all offered.
Old-school SUV touches include a high center stack and a gear lever located on the steering column to free up central console space for a wide and flexible storage bin.
Standard and Optional Features
Standard features on the M-Class include eight-way power heated front seats, a sunroof, a 100-watt audio system with eight speakers arranged in pairs, dual-zone automatic climate control and a power liftgate.
For those desirous of heightened luxury, several options packages are offered on the M-Class. The Premium 1 Package adds a rearview camera, power-folding exterior mirrors and a navigation system. The Premium 2 upgrade brings heated and cooled cupholders, an 830-watt Harman/Kardon audio system and an ambient light system with three different light color settings.
Enthusiasts should note the Dynamic Handling Package, which includes an air suspension system that aids both on and off-road use as well as the Active Curve System that helps negate body roll by tightening up the anti-roll bars in heavy cornering. 20-inch alloy wheels round out the package.
New for the latest model is an optional On- and Off-Road Package that better equips the M-Class to hit the trails thanks to a two-stage transfer case, a longitudinal differential lock and six transmission settings for various types of terrain.
Mercedes-Benz has long been known for its safety features, and the M-Class looks to continue that tradition. In addition to ABS and ESP stability control, the SUV boasts nine supplemental restraints including two-stage front air bags, a knee air bag for the driver and pelvic air bags which work together with curtain and side air bags to provide extra protection for front occupants in dangerous side-impact collisions.
Also standard is an "ATTENTION ASSIST" system that can alert the driver to the first signs of drowsiness, a factor that causes more than 100,000 accidents a year in the U.S. A steering sensor is coupled to smart software that uses 70 parameters to establish a unique driver profile during the first 20 minutes of driving. Between 50 and 112 mph, the system identifies the erratic steering corrections drivers make as they begin to get drowsy and triggers an audible warning and a "Time for a Rest?" message with a coffee cup icon in the instrument cluster.
A new addition to the standard features list for the latest model year is Collision Prevention Assist, which uses a dedicated radar sensor to monitor the distance to a vehicle in front and to stationary objects. If the system senses a risk of an imminent collision, it pre-charges the brakes and alerts the driver with a warning beep and flashing light on the dash.
The standard version of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV is up against the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, Lexus RX 350, BMW X5 and the Infiniti FX35.