2006 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class preview

Ask Mercedes-Benz what spurred the original M-Class to market and the answer is long and somewhat convoluted. The real reason, however, is not difficult to find if you scratch the surface – when M-B polled its owner body most had an SUV (a Jeep Grand Cherokee usually) parked in the garage next to their Benz.

Some say this statistic caused the M-Class to be rushed to market, as it was not one of M-B’s better efforts. The ride comfort was iffy, the trunk space limited and the interior starkly bland. Certainly, it boasted the requisite M-B accoutrements, but driving it always made it feel like the proverbial poor relation. The new M-Class addresses the shortcomings by making it appreciable larger (150-mm longer, 71-mm wider and it now rides on a 2,915-mm wheelbase, which is up 95-mm) and giving it a much stronger presence, better road manners and a healthy dose of refinement.

While there is little that can be done to break an SUV’s two-box mould, the new M-Class manages to push the envelope – the windshield and roofline are fast, the nose and projector-style headlamps are classy and the interior has a warm inviting feel.

Hop up behind the wheel, and the interior treatment and reworked layout impresses immediately. The smaller than usual steering wheel hub eases the view to the chic new instrumentation, the centre stack is logical, with a large navigation screen dominating the upper portion of the tester. The lone gripe is that the Comand system (which controls everything from the audio package to the phone) is still a little too convoluted.

The seating is first class, and this holds true for both the front and rear pews. Up front, the 10-way adjustment makes it easy to establish the right driving position, which can then be set into one of the three memory positions. In the rear, the cushion is deeply padded and wide enough to accommodate three adults in relative comfort. Best of all, there is plenty of head- and legroom, as well as enough space under the front seat to put your feet. The central tunnel’s intrusion has also been cut to a height of about 70-mm, which also gives the centre rider somewhere to put their feet.

As for versatility, the 70/30-split/folding seats are easy to stow. Simply lift the seat base, drop the headrest to its lowest position and the back folds down to reveal a flat floor and surprisingly small wheel well intrusions. With the seats up the new M-Class will tote 19.5 cubic feet of stuff, with the seats folded the number jumps to 72.4 cu. ft. There’s also additional storage under the load floor and a privacy cover to keep prying eyes off your valuables.
The driving dynamics again take a large steps forward. When it arrives later this year, the bigger M will be powered by a reworked 3.5L V6 or range-topping 5.0L V8 – an AMG version is promised at a later date. The new V6 engine churns out a rewarding 272 horsepower and 350 newton-metres of torque. The result is spirited performance and decent fuel mileage – an average of 11.6 L/100 km.

The up-level V8 cranks the numbers up to 306 hp and a stump pulling 460 Nm of torque at just 2,600 rpm. Obviously this improves the feel and response enormously. It also sounds the part, with a purposeful growl emanating from the twin tailpipes – the V6 sounds rather thrashy in comparison.
Noteworthy is the standard seven-speed automatic transmission and its manuamtic mode. Up- and downshifting can be accomplished through a pair of steering wheel-mounted buttons. On-road, this allows engine braking to be put to good use when running quickly. Adopting a steering wheel-mounted shift-by-wire lever also frees up the centre console, where there are now two large cup holders and longitudinal grab rails.

The power is relayed to the road through large 255/50R19 tires (an option) and a sophisticated all-wheel drive system. Even when the V8 is matted from a standstill, the system shuttles the power around so that not a peep in heard from the tires. The system also includes some off-road electronics – downhill speed control and revised ABS and throttle mapping. Later in the year, the Off-road Pro package will add a low range gear set to the mix, which will drastically improve the M’s off-road ability.

As for handling, it is a case of good and better. The base suspension dials out most of the body roll while cushioning most road irregularities. The optional three-mode Airmatic suspension takes things to a higher plain altogether. In the normal mode, it switches between soft and firm settings as the road changes. If you decide to flex the engine, pushing the sport mode firms things up nicely while lowering the ride height by 15-mm. It also all but eliminates body roll without feeling overly harsh on broken pavement.

Consequently, when pushed into a fast sweeper it takes a quick set and holds this flat attitude from apex to exit. The response to steering input is also precise, which is somewhat of a rarity for an SUV. Indeed, the combination of the normal and sport modes almost makes the comfort setting redundant. The air ride suspension allows the driver to jack the ground clearance up by 110-mm (to a maximum of 291 mm) when the off-road going gets seriously gnarly.

The new M-Class is appreciably better than the truck it replaces. The refinement is there for all to enjoy, its work ethic is solid and it has the versatility demanded of a modern SUV. When it arrives, it will be priced in the $60,000 Range for the base ML350, which is marginally more expensive that the out-going truck.