Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 4Matic

The Good: No price increase, better mileage, more pep, the smoothest ride on the planet
The Bad: Expensive options, high price of diesel used by BlueTEC model
The Bottom Line: Mercedes’ classic luxury SUV is much improved for 2012

Make: Mercedes-Benz
Model: ML350
Model Year: 2012
Body Type: Four-door, five-passenger SUV
Price Class: Premium

Up Front

Mercedes is red-hot right now: U.S. sales of Mercedes-brand vehicles were up nearly 50 percent in November, compared with the same month last year. Though much of the growth is coming from the entry-level C-Class, Mercedes also is getting a big boost from one of its more traditional products: the M-Class mid-size SUV, that darling of well-heeled suburban soccer moms. U.S. sales of the M-Class, which made its debut in September, soared 38.2 percent, to 4,796, in November, and were up 17.8 percent, to 30,522, in the first 11 months of this year.

What I like about the new ML350—the flagship M-Class model—is that it’s such an easy vehicle to live with, day-to-day. The interior has been upgraded, with more standard equipment, more ergonomic controls, and beautiful blocky burl walnut trim on the dash and doors. The front seats are extremely comfortable, with lots of travel up and down and back and forth. The rear seat seems even roomier than before because the seat backs now recline.

The power of the standard V6 engine has been increased to 302 horsepower (an increase of 34) and 273 lb.-ft. of torque and now features a highly efficient direct fuel injection system. There’s also a ML350 BlueTEC with a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 rated at 240 hp and an incredible 455 lb.-ft. of torque. All-wheel-drive is standard on both models. A redesigned V8-powered ML550 and super-speedy ML63 AMG are due out next March, but the ML350 has plenty of oomph for most owners.

Fuel economy on the gasoline-powered ML350 is up by 2 miles per gallon, to 17 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway, and 19 on average. The diesel-powered ML350 BlueTEC does even better, with 20 in the city, 27 on the highway, 22 average. Those figures match the fuel economy of arch-rival BMW’s 2012 X5 xDrive35i (16/23/19) and diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d (19/26/22).

Mercedes also held the line on prices: The 2012 ML350 starts at $49,865, exactly the same as the 2011 ML350 with all-wheel-drive. The diesel-powered ML350 BlueTEC starts at $51,365, also the same as before. However, the recent rise in the price of diesel has made the BlueTEC less attractive (more on that later). The 2012 ML550 will start at $59,340.

Standard equipment includes nine airbags, as well as traction and stability control, active front head restraints, and the PreSafe system, which anticipates collisions and takes steps to protect occupants. Options include intelligent cruise-control, lane-departure, and blind-spot warning systems ($2,950, or $850 without intelligent cruise control), and a night-vision system ($1,780).

Hot new models have helped Mercedes gain ground on BMW late in the year, though Mercedes still trails year-to-date. Mercedes’ 47.2 percent increase drove up total U.S. sales of Mercedes-brand vehicles to 26,796 in November. By comparison, total U.S. sales of BMW-brand vehicles increased only 7.1 percent in November, to 21,521.

The BMW X5 is selling well, though not quite as well as the M-Class. U.S. sales of the X5 were up 30.8 percent, to 4,496 (300 less than the M-Class), in November. With sales of 34,450, the X5 outsold the M-Class by about 4,000 units during the first 11 months of the year, but sales were up only 8.5 percent, less than half the Mercedes’ growth rate.

Behind the Wheel

If you go with the $5,150 Dynamic Handling Package—which includes an air suspension system and adaptive damping—the ML350 has the smoothest ride of any SUV I’ve ever driven. I barreled around bumpy rural Pennsylvania back roads in “comfort” mode with a nearly full mug of coffee in the driver’s cup holder: Not a drop spilled.

There’s a “sport” setting that noticeably stiffens the suspension for those who want a more BMW-like ride. The transmission also has a manual mode that allows the driver to do the shifting via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Handling is excellent in inclement weather. I test-drove the ML350 in snow, ice, and rain, and the standard all-wheel-drive kept the vehicle stuck to the road even when I pushed the speed in curves and around corners. Extra sound-deadening measures keep the cabin very quiet at all legal speeds.

The V6’s added power makes the new ML350 quicker than before. Mercedes says both the gasoline- and diesel-powered models accelerate from 0 to 60 in 7.3 seconds, which is fairly impressive for a vehicle that weighs 4,753 lbs. (5,040 lbs for the BlueTEC), but I clocked the gas-powered model at 7.0 seconds flat. The BMW X5 is even quicker: BMW says the xDrive35i accelerates from 0 to 60 in 6.4 seconds, the diesel-powered xDrive 35d in 6.9 seconds.

The ML350’s interior is much improved. The front seats are extremely comfortable, with slightly more elbow space than before and a well-positioned elbow- and hand-rest. Not only do the rear seat backs now recline, but the backs of the front seats are sculpted to provide extra knee space, with plenty of foot space under the front seats. However, a third passenger in back would be very cramped. Luggage space is a voluminous 36 cu. ft., rising to 71 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded down. A panoramic sunroof costs just $1,090 extra.

Mercedes’ electronic controls have steadily gotten easier to use. I managed to figure everything out without an owner’s manual. Mercedes also improved the ergonomics of the steering-column controls; it’s now much less likely that the driver will, say, turn on the windshield wipers when trying to set the cruise control.

However, I have a few quibbles about the M350. The dash in my 74 grand test car was clad in cheap-looking padded vinyl. You can get a stitched leather dash on a $30,000 2012 Toyota Camry so it seems to me it should be standard on the dash, as well as the doors in an ML350. Also, in a vehicle this expensive, one shouldn’t have to wrestle with poorly designed seat belt buckles that are hard to latch.

Buy it or Bag It?

The choices in this segment of vehicle are fairly clear-cut. The ML350 is the comfortable, luxurious alternative, the BMW X5 the driving enthusiast’s best option, and the Acura MDX and Toyota’s popular Lexus RX 350 the budget choices. The Audi Q7 also is selling well.

The ML350 offers relatively good value. The model’s starting price may be $1,490 more than that of the BMW X5, but its average selling price of $53,111, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), is well below the X5’s average of $58,781. The ML350 comes in at $439 under the national average price for 2012 crossover SUVs, PIN calculates.

The ML350 also comes in lower than the Q7 ($58,644) and Land Rover LR4 ($57,164), although the RX 350 ($45,323), hybrid-powered Lexus RX 450h ($54,836), and Honda’s Acura MDX ($45,363) are all cheaper, on average, according to PIN. Also, if you go heavy on such options as the sunroof, dynamic handling, and premium packages, all of which I would want, you’ll pay more than the average for the ML350.

One dilemma is whether to go with the gasoline ML350 or the BlueTEC diesel. Normally, I would opt for the BlueTEC, especially for just $1,500 extra. However, in early December the national average price of ultra-low-sulfur diesel rose to $3.93, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—10.3 percent more than the $3.56 average price of the premium gasoline used by the ML350. That largely wipes out the BlueTEC’s 16 percent fuel economy advantage, making the case for diesel less compelling than in October, when I recommended the 2012 Mercedes S350 BlueTEC.

Still, I like the new ML350 with either engine. It does just about everything well at a surprisingly low price—as long as you don’t load up on options.

Click here to see more of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350.