2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec 4Matic [w/video]
It's getting harder and harder to hate SUVs these days. As manufacturers continue to walk down their own personal Green Mile toward stiffer CAFE standards, engineers have been working double-time to come up with creative ways to increase fuel economy without putting drivability or power on the sacrificial altar. As a result, the once-lumbering sport utilities of old have matured into smooth-riding, even-keeled unibody machines with the manners of significantly smaller models. Few vehicles embody that change quite as poignantly as the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec.
The M-Class has entered into its third generation of production, and the new model now comes equipped with more power and efficiency while maintaining last year's MSRP. Designers have also taken the time to iron some of the awkward out of the SUV's design with an improved front fascia and other tweaks, and there's more standard technology onboard than ever before. Continue reading to find out why the 2012 ML350 BlueTec 4Matic is the best reason we've seen yet to quit worrying and love the SUV.
The 2012 model has come a long way from the rolling-ski-boot aesthetics of its forebearers thanks in part to a few massaged exterior dimensions. Though the ML350 continues to ride on the same 114.7-inch wheelbase as last year, the vehicle is now a full inch longer from bow to stern. It also rides three-quarters of an inch lower and has grown an additional half-inch in width. Those are small adjustments, to be sure, but they help give the vehicle a more planted presence in the flesh. Designers incorporated a new nose to match the vehicle's measurements, and the front fascia now incorporates the vertical corporate Mercedes-Benz grille and dish plate-sized Silver Arrow emblem.
Integrated LED daytime running lights are tucked into lower-fascia air inlets, and a new chrome treatment trims out the lower bumper. Mercedes-Benz calls the flashy plastic a skid plate, but don't be fooled into thinking the piece will do anything other than roll over and cry at the thought of an impact. It's an awful lot of shiny on an otherwise restrained design and we aren't entirely thrilled with the addition. New headlights are also part of the package, and for a little extra coin, buyers can opt for adaptive bi-xenon units with corner illuminating lights. Engineers claim that the high-tech high beams can improve cornering visibility by as much as 90 percent.
Along the side, the 2012 M-Class maintains the high belt line and swept C-pillar of the previous generation, and new 19-inch wheels are standard equipment. Chrome roof rails are now standard as well, as are attractive running boards and side-view mirrors with integrated turning indicators.
The rear of the SUV continues to carry its wrapped rear glass and faux D-pillarless appearance, though a new roof-mounted spoiler is standard and the rear fascia has been significantly reworked. Designers opted to remove the integrated exhaust for the first time in favor of a wing-design chrome treatment that Mercedes-Benz once again calls a skid plate. We're beginning to think those words do not mean what they think they mean. Even so, we like the detail work better than front treatment. Instead of allowing the pipes to exit through the rear fascia, they're now downturned and hidden behind the bumper.
While the interior of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class continues to offer high-quality leather seats, excellent wood trim and a stylish four-spoke steering wheel, Mercedes-Benz has executed a few significant changes designed to make the cabin more user-friendly. Those start with the fact that the seat controls have been moved from down below the bottom cushion to the upper door panel. That means occupants no longer have to fumble with hidden switches to accurately position the eight-way power adjustable buckets.
In addition, interior designers finally moved the cruise control lever from above the turn indicator stalk to below it. One of the age-old gripes with the Mercedes cruise interface was that it was too easy to confuse the stalks while trying to change lanes. The new configuration easily takes care of that ail, and we're told to expect to see the improvement spread across the company's other models.
The gauge cluster incorporates analog speedometer and tachometer dials with a new 4.5-inch LCD screen mounted between the two. The screen can be manipulated by a five-way switch on the top left spoke of the steering wheel to display everything from fuel economy and distance traveled to GPS directions. Speaking of navigation, Mercedes-Benz has also scrapped the old color LCD screen mounted on the dash for a new standard 7-inch display that handles infotainment duties via the Command system control mounted on the center console. The interface now includes two programmable favorite buttons that can instantly call up directions home or any other number of functions.
Behind the rear hatch, the cargo area includes cutouts to allow a full set of golf clubs to be stored without having to place them diagonally across the space, and the rear seats can now be adjusted vertically as well as fold down for added passenger comfort and functionality. Speaking of the rear seats, back passengers can enjoy optional headrest-mounted iPad docking stations and Bluetooth streaming audio for movies and games. Our tester, however, wasn't laden with the Apple-friendly addition.
The SUV is also packed with safety gear, including nine standard airbags, attention assist, an adaptive brake system, electronic stability program and anti-slip regulation, among other features.
When the M-Class goes on sale later this year, buyers will be able to choose between a 3.5-liter direct-injection V6 and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6. The gasoline engine delivers 302 horsepower and 276 pound-feet of torque, representing 13 and 6 percent increases, respectively. Even so, The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the six-cylinder will return 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. For 2012, the city fuel economy has been increased by 13 percent.
We spent our time behind the wheel of the ML350 BlueTec 4Matic, which is powered by Benz's 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 engine with 240 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque. The official EPA numbers on the oil burner haven't surfaced yet, but Mercedes-Benz estimates fuel economy in the neighborhood of 20 mpg city (an 11 percent increase over last year), 25 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined, and the engine still relies on the AdBlue urea injection system to keep particulate emissions in check. On the wide-open highways of Montana, we kept the cruise set at a steady 85 mph and were able to inch the fuel economy figures up to 24 mpg combined, so the manufacturer's figures may be a bit conservative.
The company's engineers have worked to diminish harsh vibrations generated by the diesel cycle. As a result, the engine features an internal balance shaft snugged between the cylinder banks. The piece counter-rotates at the same speed as the crankshaft and is driven by a double chain that operates the twin cams in each cylinder head. Additionally, the connecting rod journals are offset by 30 degrees to promote a smoother-running engine. It all translates into one of the creamiest, quietest diesel engines that we've ever had our hands on. We routinely found ourselves purposefully hunting for the familiar rumble and knock of the diesel engine from inside the cabin and coming up empty.
All M-Class models come equipped with a revised seven-speed automatic transmission that's seven-percent more efficient than the outgoing gearbox. Part of that efficiency comes from utilizing a special blue fluid with a lower viscosity, which in turn allows for lower hydraulic pressure. The transmission also features a lock-up torque converter that can lock in at any gear. New programming also allows the gearbox to skip up to four gears at a time to put the engine at the correct speed at the right time. The company's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system remains standard as well.
In addition to the new transmission, the ML350 is also available with Parktronic active parking assist thanks to a newly revised electro-mechanical power steering system. And while we typically wince at word that an automaker has abandoned traditional hydraulic power steering for electronic wizardry, this system handles itself well at a variety of speeds. Check out our Short Cut below for a look at how the active parking assist performs.
Mercedes-Benz also significantly revised the suspension on the 2012 M-Class by offering the optional Dynamic Handling Package. By using a unique split sway bar as a part of the Active Curve system, engineers managed to create a suspension that caters to drivers needs on an impressive level. The bars are separated into two halves with a hydraulic coupling in the middle. While driving in a straight line, the coupling is open, allowing each wheel to quickly react to changes in the road surface. Should the road turn twisty and the driver begin sawing on the wheel, however, the coupling closes, effectively creating a solid bar and increasing the vehicle's stability.
Unfortunately, our tester wasn't equipped with the swank new sway bars, but that doesn't mean that the base ML350 BlueTec 4Matic is a slouch on the road. The 455 lb-ft of torque comes on nearly instantaneously from just 1,600 rpm, allowing the seven-speed automatic transmission to hold gears without having to reach for multiple downshifts. With all of the torque we could want on hand and an incredibly smooth-running 3.0-liter engine out front, the diesel is a smart-driving cruiser that can soak up miles of interstate. Potholes and surface irregularities are absorbed by the excellent suspension without any drama, which typically means the vehicle will produce undue body roll under more athletic circumstances. Surprisingly enough, the tall-riding SUV maintains fairly flat, stable cornering. We have to wonder just how much those split stabilizer bars would add to the equation.
The new electro-mechanical power steering system varies the amount of assist on hand exponentially according to your speed. In parking lot maneuvers, it takes less than an asthmatic wheeze to spin the wheel to lock, but gain some speed and the controls weight themselves nicely. At an interstate clip, the steering feels incredibly solid. Still, we wouldn't mind seeing the assist toned down below 10 mph.
Unfortunately, brake feel on the 2012 M-Class still leaves something to be desired. Despite boasting large 13-inch rotors and floating calipers on all four corners, the pedal seems to sink by leaps and bounds before the vehicle loses any actual velocity. With its solid power, well-sorted suspension and speed-adaptive power steering, the brake system is the only missing ingredient in this otherwise impressive display.
Mercedes-Benz reckons that the 2012 M-Class represents a three-percent price value increase for its consumers. That figure is based on the fact that the new model now incorporates much more standard equipment and technology while still commanding the same $48,990 price tag as the 2011 model, sans the $875 delivery and destination fee it takes to get the vehicle into your neighborhood. Even better, Mercedes-Benz will only ask for an additional $1,500 should you decide you want to call the 3.0-liter diesel V6 your very own.
Mercedes-Benz has managed to turn the M-Class into an easy-driving vehicle that's about as far from its lumbering predecessors as it gets. With a stable ride, copious power and solid fuel economy when equipped with the diesel engine, this SUV could be an ambassador for the future of its kind. While the rest of the world is running to the crossover craze, the ML350 BlueTec 4Matic proves that there's still plenty of life left in the SUV game.
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