2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 Bluetec 4Matic

I'm amused to see cooled and heated cup holders in this German car. It took years for the German automakers to deign to provide cup holders in their vehicles, because they were perplexed as to why we silly Americans wanted them (because you're supposed to drive, not drink beverages, when you're in a car, was their view). They've come full circle and now Mercedes-Benz not only provides lots of cup holders but they're heated and cooled! It's quite rich. It's also rich that the cooled function is something that Mercedes clearly borrowed from their former colleagues in Auburn Hills, because that was a Chrysler idea.

As I drove this luxurious SUV, I thought about how far the M-class has come from the first-generation M-class, which was plagued by build quality issues in the Alabama assembly plant back in 1997. In comparison with this 2012 model, the late-90s vehicle was a fairly grim piece of work. But Mercedes-Benz really has this thing spiffed up. It has superb ride comfort and impressive handling, the diesel is a great powertrain, and the interior is pretty much beyond reproach.

Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor

With all the buzz about Audi and Volkswagen's TDI engines, it's possible to forget Mercedes has been offering diesel versions of the ML, GL, and R-class for several years. Now the S-class has a diesel option. All of these vehicles are powered by the same 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V-6, and it's a spectacular engine in each application.

Diesel engines fit the Mercedes experience very well. There's enough torque to make you forget about the relative lack of horsepower, cruising range is incredible, and there are virtually no audio or visual cues to remind you the engine is burning diesel instead of gas. It's just a more efficient way to move these big, heavy luxury vehicles.

Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor

Long ago, Mercedes built its name on cars that felt as solid as a bank vault and were just as quiet. When you're behind the wheel of the all-new M-class, there is little to tell you that the engine under the hood is an oil-burner -- it sounds just like a strong V-6 and pulls hard at low revs. However, lower the windows and you might think you're driving a diesel Sprinter van. At idle, the diesel clatter is almost nonexistent, but under any kind of acceleration, it makes itself heard. Put the windows back up, and the serene silence returns.

Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor

Yes, you can hear the telltale tapping and whooshing of a turbodiesel engine if you open the windows and pay attention, but 95 percent of the time, the diesel engine draws no undue attention to itself. The 3.0-liter V-6 has plenty of power and is responsive when you request more acceleration. It's as quiet and vibration-free as you would expect any Mercedes engine, whether gasoline or diesel, to be.

Our ML350 had Active Park Assist, which I was eager to try as I had written about it in a feature story. Pull up just past an open parallel-parking spot, select reverse, hit "OK" to engage the system, then modulate throttle and brakes as the Mercedes spins its steering wheel automatically. The car indeed does steer itself into the space with incredible precision -- the ML's nose was only inches from the car in front -- but the system didn't work perfectly. On several occasions, the computer failed to recognize open spaces that would easily have accommodated the ML. And on two or three occasions, Active Park Assist neatly steered the ML so that the right-rear tire gently clipped the curb. It's a really cool system, but it seems to need a few more tweaks.

Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor

My sister, who's just started a public health graduate program at the University of Michigan, was recently at a bar commiserating with her peers about looming debts and lack of income. One of her fellow students allowed that he was considering applying for food stamps. Another described living in a studio apartment carved out of the closet of an old home. How embarrassing that after hearing these stories of noble self-sacrifice, she found a gleaming Mercedes SUV waiting for her at the curb and had to clamber into its plush leather cabin as she bade her fellow street urchins goodbye. But wait! If the Other Half had abstained from talking about their depressing lives for a moment and listened to the exhaust note as I pulled away, they'd have realized that this is a diesel-powered, $51,365, 5000-lb SUV. See? I do care; I do share in their quest for noble self-sacrifice, because I'm driving an environmentally friendly SUV! In half seriousness, I wonder why European automakers have never tried to attack the diesel stigma head on in their advertising in an effort to make the trademark clatter synonymous with environmental and social awareness. At this point, it's pretty clear engineers are never going to fully conquer the noise, vibration, and harshness. As Donny notes, the 3.0-liter V-6, smooth as it is in its power delivery, makes itself heard when you open the window. Better to roll them up so as not to hear the sound of grad students whining (note that they all somehow had money for the bar).

David Zenlea, Associate Editor

It's too bad that diesels made such an inauspicious debut in the U.S. market in the 1980s. Most of those powerplants were so egregiously bad that they managed to turn people away from diesel technology for several generations. Consequently, few people realize how refined modern diesels are. Perhaps the 3.0-liter BlueTec V-6 in this ML350 will change people's minds. The fact that this engine is a diesel is only apparent if you listen for the faint diesel clatter with the window open, because with the cockpit windows closed, driver and passengers are comfortably insulated from any noise, vibration, or harshness coming from the outside world.

So, yes, this is a fine powerplant. But the thing I'm happiest to see in the new M-class? The redesigned column-mounted stalks, so that I'm no longer accidentally activating the cruise control system when all I want to do it use the blinker. Bliss.

Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor

I find myself comparing any SUV I drive with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and it couldn't be any more appropriate than it is here since the ML's underpinnings are a good portion of what makes the GC so great. In this case, the student has surpassed the teacher. Where the GC feels, dare I say, nimble and effortless to drive, the ML feels heavy and almost unwieldy. The interior ambiance is also a step down from the Jeep's, largely due to Mercedes-Benz's slow, cumbersome, and unattractive infotainment interface. The diesel Bluetec engine does go a long way in making this car feel special, though, and it improves fuel economy tremendously. It's definitely the flavor I'd choose if the ML were on my must-have list.

Oh, and I second Amy's praise of the redesigned column stalks. It may sound nitpicky, but the previous downward angled cruise control stalk really was a nuisance.

Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms

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Certainly the new ML has a lot of refinements over the previous 2 predecessors releases, but I think MB still not serious in capturing enthusiasts imagination and new buyers in this segment. ML in design does not match-up with the Porsche-Cayenne, BMW X5/6, Audi Q5, Infinity FX and for that matter the new entries from luxury manufactures such as Maserati . The ML is solid in performance, but looks & charisma is also required when paying top money.

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