The Good: Beautiful styling; better reliability; more fun to drive
The Bad: Gets lousy gas mileage; no third row; gear shifter takes getting used to
The Bottom Line: Mercedes nails it with the ML500 but poor fuel economy hurts sales
Slide Show > >When Mercedes introduced its first SUV, the M Class, in 1997, many people were disappointed. Even though it debuted with some impressive technological achievements, such as stability control and side airbags, there were problems with initial quality. It was boxy. It didn't feel enough like a luxury vehicle, let alone a Mercedes. But it became the third-best-selling Mercedes model in North America, after the C Class and the E Class.
For 2006, Mercedes completely redesigned the M and finally transformed it from an ugly duckling into a swan-like SUV. Fit and finish are vastly improved. Reliability issues appear to have been ironed out. The second-generation M has a new unibody platform, double-wishbone front suspension, four-link rear suspension, and a coefficient of drag of 0.4. It is longer, wider, and 0.4 inches lower than the old model.
In addition, new features include an electronically controlled seven-speed transmission, optional Active Curve-Illuminating Bi-Xenon headlights, an adjustable-height air suspension, standard all-wheel drive, and electronic traction control with downhill driving aid and Hill-Start Assist.
But best of all, it looks smoking hot.
This is really one beautiful SUV. With its streamlined, aerodynamic styling and more aggressive grille, the all-new M finally looks like a Mercedes. The company spent $600 million retooling the Vance (Ala.) factory where the M Class and the new R Class are both built, and judging by the results the money was well spent.
Or was it?
In spite of its dramatic improvement, the M Class is still a big—though not that big—gas-guzzling SUV. The ML350 version with a 3.5-liter V6 engine gets only 16 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. But that seems practically parsimonious when compared to the faster and more expensive ML500, whose 5.0-liter V8 gets only 14 mpg in the city and 19 on the highway.
Largely because of this poor fuel economy, instead of being a sales smash with affluent consumers, it stalled. Year-to-date, sales of the M Class are down 10.3%, which is terrible given that probably many potential customers put off buying last year because they were waiting for the new model. And while Mercedes announced that they had the best August sales month ever—20,602 new vehicles, an increase of 6.9% over last August—that was largely based on the strength of the S Class (which soared 105.9%) and the SLK. Every other model declined for August.
The M Class doesn't deserve such treatment, but the fact is that it just burns too much gas. The BMW X5 gets better gas mileage, as does the Volvo XC 90. In fact, even a behemoth such as the 2007 Chevy Suburban, with its new Vortec 5.3-liter V8, gets comparable gas mileage, with more space and at a lower price.
BEHIND THE WHEEL.
If only one could forget about gas price when driving the M Class—and many of the people who can afford one probably worry less about paying more for gas than most—it would be an unalloyed pleasure.
Not only are the ML350 and the ML500 more powerful than their predecessors but they also have better handling. The $43,455 ML350 comes with a 3.5L, 24-valve V-6 with 268 hp @ 6,000 rpm. The $49,975 ML500 has a more powerful 5.0L, 24-valve V-8 that kicks out 302 hp @ 5,600 rpm, and, because of the heavy weight of the M Class, 339 lb-ft of torque @ 2,700. In fact, given the ML350's 4,705 lbs., the V6 feels almost sluggish, although it is a big improvement over the old SOHC 18-valve six.
That also translates to 0 to 60 mph speeds of 7.9 seconds for the ML350 and 6.7 seconds for the ML500.
Mercedes used the M Class to introduce its 7-seven speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. The steering-wheel-mounted shifter provides the normal range of Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive, but it also lets drivers manually downshift and allows upshifts using rocker buttons on the wheel.
The advantage of more gears is that they increase performance and fuel economy, but it may take some drivers time to get used to it. To put the car into Park, for example, requires having to push in the shifter.
Off-road, despite its unibody construction and luxury personality, the M Class is surprisingly agile. With one touch of a button the all-wheel drive slips into off-road mode. The driver-activated "Downhill Speed Regulation" control uses antilock brakes and the throttle to help descend steep hills, and the optional height-adjustable air suspension lifts the vehicle up for better ground clearance.
Because the '06 M Class is longer and wider, handling is also improved. Thanks to its unibody construction, it rides more like a car than a truck. The ML500 comes with an adaptive damping system that lets the driver select—depending on road conditions and his or her inclinations—one of three settings: "normal," the slightly plusher "comfort" and the relatively taut "sport." The sport setting is particularly enjoyable and keeps the vehicle excitingly tight in curves.
Inside, the car is just as splendid. The cabin is roomy and much more luxurious than its predecessor, though such amenities will cost you even more. Sure, the ML500 has goodies like heated eight-way adjustable power leather front seats, real wood trim and chrome, infrared window wiper sensors, and dual-zone automatic climate control. But additional treats like satellite GPS navigation, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, power tailgate, and even front cupholders will tack on nearly $10,000 to the price tag.
Fully loaded, the ML500 rings up at nearly $60,000, which is pricey, but still pretty good for a Mercedes. Bear in mind the 2007 Mercedes E350 wagon with 4MATIC has an MSRP of $56,475 before options.
BUY IT OR BAG IT?
Ah, if only the all-new ML500 had been introduced in 2005, it would have been a smash. In addition to making it look and drive better, Mercedes also seems (so far at least) to have worked out all the quality kinks that tainted the original M Class. There have been no recalls yet for the '06 model. It has scored top marks on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's front- and side-crash tests.
One way that Mercedes might be able to stoke sales is to bring over the diesel-powered M Class SUVs that it sells in Europe. The ML280 CDI and the ML320 CDI, slightly modified to meet U.S. standards, could provide Mercedes with a more fuel-efficient SUV to help lift its sales.
Fuel economy aside, there is only one other quibble we have with the M Class: It has no optional third-row seat. That may hurt its sales with families who simply require more seating room for themselves and their friends. (In fact, a friend of mine recently told me that was the only reason he didn't buy an M Class after the birth of his third child.)
Still, at this price point and luxury level, there are few other SUVs that can touch the M Class. The Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5 are also struggling in the salesrooms, even though they are comparably priced and deliver great driving performance and plush interiors (one exception is the top-line, very fast Cayenne Turbo S, which has an MSRP of $111,600).
Still, there might be a silver lining for Mercedes. If gas prices continue to soften, and if its engineers continue to develop more fuel-efficient engines, the M Class can still become the hit it deserves to be. For well-heeled drivers who want performance, style, and comfort (and can live with less-than-great fuel economy and without a third-row seat) the ML500 is a must.
To see more images of the ML500, click here.