The SUV Refined

Mercedes' new M-Class vehicles are sleek and roomy -- and drive like a car

Gone are the boxy looks and rough-and-tumble ride. The new Mercedes (DCX ) M-Class SUV is longer, lower, and wider, with a more graceful shape and a whisper-quiet ride that approaches that of the company's luxury sedans.

The previous M, launched eight years ago, popularized the idea of sport-utility vehicles for the mid-luxury set. But it was built like a pickup, with separate body and frame. It also had a chintzy interior and was plagued with reliability problems. It was eclipsed by more carlike rivals, such as the Lexus RX (TM ) and BMW 5 Series.

There are two versions of the new M-Class: I drove the top-of-the-line ML500 around Los Angeles for a week. The new single-piece, unibody frame -- just like a car -- gives it a much more refined ride than its predecessor, soaking up bumps, and its lusty, 302-horsepower V8 provides more than enough thrust. Steering is firm and controlled, but as with most SUVs, the car leans a lot around quick corners.

The new M is nearly six inches longer, and that length is put to good use: Front and rear passengers have two more inches of leg room, and there's an additional six cubic feet of cargo space. A full complement of safety gear is standard: antilock brakes, stability and traction control, and side and curtain airbags.

Huge, circular vents in the dash, along with a TV-like display for controlling entertainment and navigation, dominate the interior. Mercedes moved the gearshift from the console (replacing it with better cup holders) to the steering column; it controls the seven-speed automatic transmission, a first in an SUV. It doesn't work like a conventional shifter, but I found it easy to get used to. Tap it up for reverse, down for drive, and push a button on the end of the stalk for park. A problem: Two stalks on the left side of the column, for turn signals and cruise control, are easy to confuse.

Despite the new transmission, which improves fuel economy by 11%, this isn't a particularly thrifty car, getting 19 miles per gallon on highways and a paltry 14 mpg in the city. Then there's the price: The ML500 starts at $49,275, and a long list of high-cost options -- including a $1,575 suspension, $1,290 sunroof, $520 power tailgate, $1,080 CD changer, or $4,200 for sportier bumpers and wheels -- can easily add 15 grand. For my money, I'd start with the V6-powered ML350 for $40,525. It's nearly as quick, and leaves you with almost $9,000 extra to spend on those luxury necessities.

By Larry Armstrong

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