When Mercedes-Benz introduced the M-Class in 1998, the mid-sized sport-utility vehicle was unique for its combination of silky on-road performance and off-road capabilities. But as other luxury manufacturers entered the segment, the M-Class lost its edge. Part of the problem was its lackluster styling. In addition,the vehicle's performance, while capable, didn't match newer products such as the BMW X5 and the Infiniti FX45 (the AMG ML55 being the exception).
Never a company to sit on its haunches and mope, Mercedes-Benz stepped up to the challenge with a new-generation M-Class that gives other automakers a new standard to chase. From its swoopy aerodynamic profile to its all-new V6 engine and industry-first seven-speed automatic transmission, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350 is a potent package. It’s roomier than the car it replaces, has a more ergonomic, more functional interior, redesigned suspension, and a higher level of safety. Out of the box, it can handle the off-road needs of almost all drivers. With the addition of an optional off-road handling package later this year, the 2006 M-Class should be able to handle virtually any terrain on the planet.
A More Powerful Engine with Enhanced Fuel Economy
A new 3.5-liter V6 aluminum engine utilizes variable valve timing and a two-stage intake manifold to boost power without sacrificing fuel economy. The 268-horsepower engine develops 87 percent of its maximum torque at 1,500 r.p.m., allowing the M-Class to accelerate from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in just over eight seconds. An industry-first seven-speed automatic transmission boosts gas mileage by allowing for smaller increases in engine speed between shifts. The most noticeable difference to the driver may be the gear shift mechanism itself. Gone is the mechanical stalk and gate shift. In its place is a small stalk to the right of the steering column that uses electronic controls to engage the gears. The driver can still manually select gears using buttons on the back of the steering wheel.
As with the original, the new M-Class features a permanent four-wheel drive system that automatically sends engine power to the wheels with the best grip. Under dry road conditions, the torque is split 50/50 front-to-rear. A four-wheel drive version of Mercedes’ electronic traction control system can transfer up to 100 percent of the torque to one wheel to maintain directional control on wet or uneven surfaces.
The M-Class has remarkable traction off-road: it can climb extremely steep hills and plow through mud slurry with ease. All cars come with standard hill descent control and a hill-holder feature that prevents the vehicle from sliding backwards when starting up on a steep hill.
Optional air suspension allows the driver to change vehicle height, with maximum ground clearance topping ten inches. The off-road package available later this year adds a two-speed transfer case, so drivers can crawl over precipitous terrain at extremely slow speeds.
On-Road Performance Like a Luxury Sedan
Unit construction gives the M-Class a car-like ride. The test vehicle, equipped with the standard 17-inch wheels, felt solid and nimble driving through urban traffic. Because the standard rack-and-pinion steering system is not speed sensitive, it feels a little tight at slow speeds. Speed-sensitive steering is available as an option. On the other hand, the brakes feel a touch soft, but they respond well and stop the car quickly.
A redesigned fully-independent suspension provides a firm but compliant ride, similar in feel to Mercedes sedans. Engineers made significant strides in improving torsional rigidity; as a result, the vehicle has even better steering response than its predecessor.
Visibility is good all the way around the car. Redundant turn signals on the side view mirrors make those signals easier for drivers on either side to see. Buyers can opt for bi-xenon curve-illuminating headlamps that change direction according to steering input, to light the corners on dark roads. Windshield and rear window wipers do a good job of keeping those surfaces free of water and dirt.
Standard eight-way power driver’s seat and a tilt and telescopic steering wheel enable drivers of all sizes to feel comfortable. While the test car came with optional leather trim, cloth upholstery comes standard: a feature that should appeal to buyers who use their cars to head to the trails. The test car came with optional heated seats: a nice feature for drivers who live in the snow belt.
Both front and rear seats have great lumbar support and generous head and leg room. While the M-Class has seatbelts in three rear seating positions, the vehicle is only wide enough to hold two adults comfortably. The 60/40 split rear seats fold down easily with the flip of a latch, and will fold flat without removing the headrests.
User-friendly Instrument Panel
The redesigned instrument panel keeps knobs and buttons to a minimum. The center stack contains the controls for the dual-temperature heating and air conditioning controls, audio, and (optional) navigational system. The navigation screen flips down to reveal slots for loading in compact disks and the navigation digital disk. Buyers can upgrade to a 6-disk audio system with MP3 capability. A separate adaptor that allows drivers to play iPods through the audio system debuts in 2006. Standard steering wheel controls include redundant volume and cruise control settings.
Mercedes-Benz utilizes a cruise control stalk above the turn signal stalk on its cars. The M-Class also uses this system. It can be easy to confuse the two stalks, especially when driving in traffic.
The center console has two, generous-sized cupholders that are large enough to hold a quart bottle of Gatorade: an appealing feature in the Phoenix summer. Equally appealing is the nicely designed two-bin cubby, that holds compact disks below and smaller items such as cell phones up above. Map pockets in the front doors are designed to hold bottles as well.
Rear passengers get their own heating and air conditioning controls, as well as two, twelve-volt outlets, located in the rear of the center console. There are map pockets in back of both front seats. The optional sunroof brought additional sunlight into the second row.
Athlete-friendly Cargo Area
The rear hatch opens up a wide load-in space, making it easy to stow items in back. There’s a standard first aid kit in a storage area to the left, an additional twelve-volt outlet, and four tie-down rings on the floor. A full-sized spare beneath the cargo floor is easy to reach. The cargo bed will easily hold a couple of road bikes with front wheels removed, once the rear seats are folded flat. Roof rails are standard on all models.
The test car came with the optional tow hitch. So equipped, the M-Class can haul up to 5,000 pounds.
Safety from the Ground Up
The new M-Class features crash boxes to the front and rear, that absorb impact and reduce the cost of repairs. High-strength steel throughout much of the body protects the passengers inside, as do standard front, side and side curtain airbags. A tire inflation monitor is standard. So are antilock brakes, traction control, and electronically controlled seat belt pretension and force limiters in all outboard positions.
Two Available Grades
The new M-Class is available in two grades to reflect two available engines: the ML350 with the 3.5-liter V6, and the ML500, with a 5-liter V8. Base prices range from $40,525 for the ML350 to $49,275 for the ML500. Prices include a $775 destination and delivery charge.