In 1997, the crossover term applied only to psychics and gender swappers. The Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester, and the Toyota RAV4 were thoughtfully mapping a car-based path for the Lexus RX300, the BMW X5, and the Acura MDX to follow. The course was clear for mid-size SUVs to ditch trucky underpinnings in favor of lighter, more supple chassis components.
Then Mercedes-Benz muddled the movement by introducing its ML320 with husky body-on-frame construction. Did Stuttgart know something that other SUV engineers had missed? Could the first premium mid-size sport-ute thrive with Gelndewagen bones inside a minivan body?
Remarkably, the M-class lacked the fortitude to venture far off-road, and its street verve fell well below Mercedes car norms. Interior furnishings were functionally flawed, conspicuously cost-conscious, and fraught with quality glitches. More remarkable is that this didn't seriously impede the M-class's acceptance. In eight model years, 620,000 of them have been built at the Vance, Alabama, plant, about half for U.S. consumption. Tarnish has barely dimmed the silver star's magnetic attraction.
Creating the first mid-lux SUV is one thing; surviving today's dogfight is quite another. Ten brands stand ready to turn $40,000 to $60,000 into the mid-size SUV of your dreams. Shelves are well stocked with street sprinters, rut runners, even a tree-hugging hybrid or two. Stepping off the hunched shoulders of the original M-class, the new second edition, just hitting dealerships, faces a long trek to the goalposts.
To clean up its manufacturing act and to improve build quality, Mercedes sank another $600 million into its Alabama plant, raised the robot count to 800, and doubled the human workforce to 4000. On the heels of the new M-class, an R-class seven-seat wagon will bow this fall, followed by a kinder, gentler G-class for 2007. Better late than never, Mercedes got crossover religion.
Visually, the first ripple of this product wave looks like a page ripped from an old Cadillac playbook. The M-class is not only 5.9 inches longer, 0.4 inch lower, and 2.8 inches wider than its predecessor, it's certifiably flamboyant. The castellated grille vanes, cocked beltline, and exaggerated fender flares evoke tail-fin times. There's a rich overlay of chrome jewelry and a daunting list of creature comforts. Driving is reduced to push-button tasks where possible. Power and performance are higher priorities, so the entry-level V-6-powered ML350 inherits the legs of the outgoing ML500, and the new ML500 finally has the lungs to run with BMW and Porsche.
In contrast to the M-class's flashy overcoat, its soul is risk-averse. Eliminating the frame, using high-strength steel for two-thirds of the unibody, and moving to a space-saver spare shaves 110 pounds. The 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 engine introduced for the new SLK-class is the heart of the ML350, while the ML500 stays with an improved edition of the venerable 5.0-liter SOHC 24-valve V-8. The corporate manu-matic transmission ups the forward gear count by two. New control-arm front and four-link rear suspension systems bring the wheel travel and geometric sophistication needed for vastly improved ride and handling. R&D head Thomas Weber expressly limited the scope of technical innovation in hopes of a trouble-free launch and an end to the quality erosion Mercedes has suffered.
In spite of the fact that all M-classes are made in America and most of them will spend their days cruising the fifty states, Mercedes shipped preproduction units to southern France for the coming-out party. The festivit en Provence makes some sense if you know your Mercedes history. Years before Daimler and Benz joined forces, the Cte d'Azur was the place where ambitious auto pioneers competed for the attention of the wealthy elite that wintered there. This is where the local car distributor Emil Jellinek persuaded Daimler Motors to inscribe his daughter's name-Mrcdes-onto the three-pointed star in exchange for his purchase of nearly a third of the 1900 production run.
Jellinek also relentlessly prodded Daimler's chief engineer, Wilhelm Maybach, for more speed and power. In 1901, the Mercedes was the most powerful and sophisticated horse-less carriage to date at Nice's late-winter speed week. Riding on a 91.6-inch wheelbase, powered by a 6.0-liter, twin-cam, 35-hp, four-cylinder engine, and driven by Wilhelm Werner, that car beat all comers in a 244-mile Nice-Salon-Nice road race. Its 53-mph top speed was bettered only by steam cars. Werner also won the La Turbie hill-climb, a winding 10.6-mile ascent from the Basse Corniche up the foothills overlooking Monaco.
With a footprint precisely the size of a Porsche Cayenne, the new ML350 is a horse too grand for the La Turbie course, so we nodded our respects to the historic hill and searched for open road. Day one was a quick jaunt up the Maritime Alps foothills to the Chteau de Berne winery, where off-pavement opportunities awaited, followed by evening's rest at the swank Terre Blanche Four Seasons resort near Fayence. On the second day, we shifted attention to the ML500 for a mix of mountain-pass sprints and coast crawls from Cannes to Nice. Snow, a rarity in Provence, added sparkle to the snapshots and spice to our high-altitude slip-and-slide investigation.
The first good news is that the 3.5-liter V-6 invigorates the ML350 just as effectively as it resuscitates the SLK. The 258-lb-ft torque curve peaks early at 2400 rpm and maintains that maximum all the way to 5000 rpm. With 268 hp on tap and a gear for every occasion, value shoppers won't be disappointed with the available thrust. Mercedes touts a 0-to-60-mph claim of 8.2 seconds. Electronic throttle and transmission controls gloss over every niggle and nub in the power delivery.
Drawing attention to this newfound powertrain poise, the shift lever for all M-classes has left the center console to live on the steering column. That not only clears ample space for two large cup holders (and for the BMW iDrive-style controller that will be phased in later), but it also changes gearshifting to button pushing. Similar to the BMW 7-series arrangement, there's a stubby stalk to the right of the steering wheel. After starting the engine, you press down for drive, up for reverse, and in for park. Traditionalists will inevitably grumble, but we found it handy.
Switches on the back side of the upper steering-wheel spokes offer some gear control to those interested in keeping the tach needle in the sweetest part of the dial. Unfortunately, this electronic manu-matic erroneously be-lieves it's smarter than the driver. Upshifts, want them or not, are automatic at the 6400-rpm redline. According to Weber, the theory is that no driver should be left hanging during a passing maneuver, needing an upshift to muster more speed. Our contention is that any driver resourceful enough to choose the manual mode should be able to punch the button on cue.
Properly shifted, the ML350 tops out at 140 mph on a stretch of autoroute. Cabin noise is thoroughly subdued. Ride quality is also soothing, but there's a price for that. Back on local roads, the body bobs and weaves like a wobbly bar stool before the dampers engage to restrain pitch-and-roll motion. The steering is slow and slightly numb to the touch, discouraging maneuvers that might upset a copacetic cruise. The ML350's floaty feeling should be a hit with customers moving up from Buicks, but everyone else should exercise this escape clause: add the optional Airmatic suspension package that includes speed-sensitive power steering, air springs, and three-way adjustable dampers.
As if to make up for its listless driving dynamics, the ML350 strives to please with a richly trimmed interior, comfortable and supportive seats, and ample elbow room for five adults. Cloth seats, aluminum accent panels, and a central Comand screen are standard; leather and vinyl upholstery and bird's-eye maple accents are optional. Every surface is polished or padded to a fare-thee-well, and there isn't a fit or finish flaw in sight. Rear seats bow out of the way with a 40/60 split to provide 72 cubic feet of cargo space. The only notable aggravation is a view of the outside world obstructed by massive A- and C-pillars.
For the off-road course winding through olive trees and grape arbors at the 275-year-old Chteau de Berne vineyard, we switched to an ML350 equipped with a package Mercedes calls Off-Road Pro. The hardware consists of a two-speed transfer case, an air suspension providing five ride heights, electronic controls to aid climbing and descending, two locking differentials, and a video screen indicating which way the front tires are pointing. It's as close as any luxury SUV gets to full Caterpillar capability. An ML350 so equipped clawed up wet-clay grades, across cratered landscape, and through a deep stream without hesitating. Expect to pay an extra $3500 for this off-road gear when it's added to the 2007 model year options list.
Switching to the ML500 for the second day of our Provence passage, we found something more satisfying than the 302 hp generated by the flagship's V-8: a hearty appetite for hammer-down driving. This M-class had the aforementioned Airmatic package, another $3500 option, which neatly eradicates most of the dynamic flaws noted in the less well-endowed ML350. While the steering is still slow, the extra frontal weight adds heft to your link with the road. Set to sport mode, the electronically adjustable dampers give the suspension athletic tension. The active-assisted brake pedal is still mushy, but there isn't a hint of dive during deceleration or squat exiting a bend. Compared with a BMW X5 4.4i, the ML500 has a bit more torque pulling slightly less weight, lending credibility to the factory's sub-seven-second 0-to-60-mph claim. In short, this is the Mercedes-Benz SUV of the enthusiast's dreams.
Neither black ice nor wet pavement im-peded us from our appointed rounds up and over the Tanneron Mountains. When the steering goes light, that's the driver's clue that the 255/55VR-18 front Michelins are sliding. Unperturbed, the ML500 holds the line with sincere confidence. Mid-corner bumps and last-ditch steering corrections are taken in stride. While American M-classes will be downgraded to H-rated rubber worth only 130 mph, Mercedes U.S. product manager Ron Mueller promises that the Airmatic suspension settings we experienced in Provence are exactly what customers who invest the extra money in that optional package will receive.
The ML500's sticker will start just under $50,000 and climb rapidly. The options list goes on and on, including DVD navigation, directional bi-xenon headlamps, Sirius satellite radio, a Harman Kardon audio system, a rear-seat kiddie screen, an iPod interface kit, rear side air bags (supplementing the six standard inflatable restraints), and park-by-ear sensors. An AMG Sports package is an interim place holder for the inevitable power upload.
Finally, Mercedes has the wherewithal to wage formidable SUV war from $40,000 to who knows how much. Luckily for us, the new M-class is as good as its predecessor was average.
Price: $50,000 (ML500 base, est.)
Engine: 5.0L SOHC V-8, 302 hp
Price: $50,000 (ML500 base, est.)
Engine: 5.0L SOHC V-8, 302 hp