Technicolor Montana skies proved a fitting backdrop for the international press launch of the third-generation Mercedes-Benz ML, as the Alabama-built sport-ute has seen more than half of its one million units head for U.S. garages.
Though its signature, swept-back c-pillar is retained, der neue ML has a flattened roofline that's a bit less jaunty and a tad more minivan-ish. The ML gains nearly an inch in length and is slightly wider and lower. With more extensive use of high-tensile steel as well as aluminum body panels and suspension components, the result is a 4753-pound curb weight, which is only 22 pounds heavier than its predecessor. This is despite a longer list of standard items that includes an extra airbag (for a total of nine), heated front seats, and a power liftgate. And, for what it's worth, the ML's .32 drag coefficient sets a new record for an SUV.
A new direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6 motivates the ML350 4MATIC, and provides higher outputs (302 hp, 273 lb-ft), and better fuel economy (17/22 mpg) than the outgoing six-cylinder. The ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC also launches this September, powered by a 3.0-liter diesel that offers more grunt (240 hp, 455 lb-ft) and improved efficiency (20/25 mpg). Both engines use Mercedes' familiar seven-speed 7Gtronic transmission, while a new electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering setup (first seen in the CLS) aids fuel economy numbers. The optional Dynamic Handling Package ($5150) continuously adjusts ride height and damping, along with a hydraulically actuated stabilizer bar that automatically disconnects during straight-line driving. Expect a V-8-powered ML in the first quarter of 2012, and a two wheel-drive ML350 the following September. There's no timeline yet on AMG or hybrid iterations.
Those infamously intractable Germans have made a number of concessions for boorish Americans. The ML's "award-winning cupholders" (wait, weren't those our idea?) are now available with built-in heaters and coolers. Based on research and customer feedback, Mercedes-Benz's multicontroller and cruise control stalks have been relocated, the rear seats now recline, and the expanded cargo area can accommodate golf clubs stowed sideways. iPad docking stations are available as a dealer-installed option for rear passengers, and can be mated to the audio system for in-car movie screenings. Mercedes-Benz tells us third-row seats are also in the works.
After a morning spent traversing Montana highways and crossing the Continental Divide and in an ML350 BlueTEC, the redesigned interior proved pleasant and refined, with a sizable swath of wood and discreet aluminum trim adorning the dash. Curiously, leather upholstery is a $1620 option for the supple yet supportive seats, but our generously equipped test car left almost no box un-ticked -- no surprise, given its $65,015 as-tested price.
Acceleration feels most urgent in the midrange stretch of the power band, where torque peaks between 1600 and 2400 rpm; passing slower traffic requires careful management of shift patterns while avoiding the engine's wheezy upper registers, where oomph tapers off. Some forethought is required when it comes to negotiating mountain passes, as the BlueTEC ML turns in lazily, with a reluctant shift in body mass until it finally settles on its course. Though the dynamic handling package did boost crispness when Sport mode was selected, there was still perceptible body roll despite the built-in anti-roll technology. The ML handles more like its larger GL stablemate than its little sibling, the GLK.
An afternoon driving stint in a standard ML350 revealed noticeably spunkier acceleration with longer legs, aided by a broader torque peak that stretches between 3500 and 5250 rpm. The mostly gravel-strewn roads on our route didn't shed much light on the gasoline-powered ML's handling capabilities, but both variants offered a smooth, quiet ride that made prolonged stints in the cabin remarkably civilized.
At the ML's unveiling earlier this year in Stuttgart, Daimler AG Chairman Dr. Dieter Zetsche boasted that sales of the current generation M-Class grew 15 percent in the first quarter of this year--unusual for a six year-old platform. And with SUV registrations in Germany increasing tenfold since 2000, it seems Americans aren't alone in their appetites for plus-sized vehicles.
The new Mercedes-Benz ML is better equipped, more lavishly detailed, and at $48,990, identically priced to its predecessor. But its conservative styling and stodgy road manners suggest Mercedes-Benz doesn't want to offend its core constituents -- at least until a brawny AMG version becomes available. So while one Mercedes-Benz executive describes the new ML as "Bolder, stronger, and safer," we can't help but think that two out of three isn't bad.