A look inside new Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC SUV


by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

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Posted on September 1, 2011 at 9:35 AM

While the middle class do their errands in Equinoxes, Jeep Grand Cherokees and Outbacks, those with means have a wider range of choices.  Porsche, Range Rover, Lexus, Audi, take your pick of the premium brands.  Mercedes-Benz hopes to lure well

The wealthy are much like you and me.  They have places to go, and things to do.  But instead of skiing at Steven’s Pass they schuss at Whistler.  We eat at McDonalds, they dine at, well, everyone goes to Mickey D’s but they also know a few nicer places to chow down.

While the middle class do their errands in Equinoxes, Jeep Grand Cherokees and Outbacks, those with means have a wider range of choices.  Porsche, Range Rover, Lexus, Audi, take your pick of the premium brands.  Mercedes-Benz hopes to lure well-off buyers into their newest sport ute, the third-generation ML350.

Those who aren’t car geeks will know there is something different but will hard pressed to figure it out.  The greenhouse, with it’s swept back C pillar and invisible D pillar look the same to the casual eye.  The sculpted flanks get a new design direction similar to the E-Class sedan.  ML is now  ¾ inch lower, an inch longer, and half an inch wider.  Obviously evolutionary, it’s clear Mercedes does not want to mess with what they had going.

It Doesn’t Use Gasoline

And that’s OK because the outgoing M-Class is very good looking.  Also attractive, is this V6.  Wearing “Blue Efficiency” badges, it’s the only outward clue my tester has a BlueTEC diesel tucked under the bonnet.  This 3.0-liter unit pumps out 240 horsepower.  That may not seem like enough oomph to motivate a 4,753 pound SUV but remember, diesels have gobs of low-end torque If “gobs” is not technical enough for you, the figure is 455 lb-ft @ 1,600 - 2,400 RPM to be exact.

I have not driven the gasoline engine but can tell you it has more horsepower at 302 but less soul moving torque at 273 lb-ft.

Addressing Diesel Myths

There’s no smoke, no smell, it doesn’t sound like a delivery truck, and emissions are very clean.  Next to the green diesel filler cap is a blue AdBlue port.  AdBlue is a urea liquid used to scrub the exhaust clean of particulates.  It’s why diesel powered cars can be sold in all 50 states these days. 

Apparently, AdBlue is similar to what your young child would euphemistically call “No. 1”.  At around $32 a gallon (and using one every 2,200 miles or so) even the rich might consider filling up with an “alternate fluid”.  Probably voids the warrantee…

Why People Love Diesels

Off the line, power is deep and effortless.  Even starting off on steep hills the engine hardly breaths, as if the hand of God pushes the M-Class along.  0-60 happens in 7.3 seconds according to MB.  Haven’t test driven a diesel?  You owe it to yourself.  Refined and capable, M-Class is no poseur, it can tow 7,200 pounds. 4MATIC all-wheel drive will have no problems getting owners to the ski slopes and through forest service roads. It’s completely automatic, unless you need to kick in hill decent control.

Those looking to really off-road their ML (both of you) will want to wait for the ON&OFFROAD package available in 2012.  Using a rotary knob, select from six transmission modes to maximize driving dynamics and handling.  Chose from one automatic mode, two dedicated off-road modes and three on-road modes.  There’s also air suspension.

Fuel economy is a diesel advantage.  EPA fuel economy numbers are 20 city, 25 highway, 3 MPG better than the gasoline engine.  These saving are easily eaten away by the price of AdBlue and diesel fuel that seems to average 20 cents more per gallon than premium gasoline in Seattle.  Trust me though, you’ll love the torque.

Quiet and comfortable, ML350 now seems more nimble in the handling department. Optional Active Curve System compensates for the roll angle of the body through turns.  Even without it M-Class corners more confidently than a Lexus RX but not quite as athletically as a BMW X5.  I’ve never driven a Mercedes that isn’t vault solid and that doesn’t change with the M-Class.  Very capable brakes haul this ute down from speed fast.

More Electronics Than A Radio Shack   

Don’t like parallel parking?  ML can do it for you. PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist sizes up spots while driving at under 20 miles per hour and signals the driver when it finds one.  Then, just go into reverse and push OK.  The driver works the gas and brake pedals, the M-Class does the rest.  It’s great fun to watch slack-jawed on-lookers. 

Blind spot warning has your back and standard Attention Assist vibrates the steering wheel if you start drifting out of your lane.  Do this enough and you get a personal greeting from Howard Shultz to buy you a cup o’ joe (actually it’s just a coffee cup icon and a suggestion to take a brake).

Not on my vehicle is optional DISTRONIC PLUS with PRE-SAFE.  It uses radar assisted cruise control to maintain a set distance behind the car in front. It even works at lower speeds to take the drudgery out of stop­and-go traffic.  It also slams on the brakes in a frontal crash situation if the driver doesn't respond quickly enough, essentially becoming a virtual crumple zone.

A Cabin To Get You To The Cabin

As expected the interior is rich looking with subtle ambient lighting on the dash and door panels plus wood trim from real trees.  The seven-speed automatic uses the Mercedes stalk that frees up space on the console, it can be manually shifted using steering wheel paddle shifters. 

There are loads of ways to listen to your tunes- Bluetooth audio streaming, 6-disc CD/DVD/MP3/ AM/FM/HD Radio/weather band radio, aux input and USB port.  They all sound great .  ML350 cruises nicely and with firm supportive heated seats it makes an excellent road trip vehicle.  Long trips to Sun Valley and Schweitzer will be a cinch.  Seat controls mounted on the doors are the best in the biz.  I wish more vehicles had dual sun visors like MLs (check out the video).

The parking brake is electric.  Options include heated and cooled cupholders.  Nearly everyone will find a comfortable driving position with the power tilt/tele steering wheel and there’s good visibility.  There are enough small storage cubbies around that you’ll probably loose things in them.  A panoramic glass roof is optional, so is a DVD entertainment system for the kids.

Stretch Out

Three full-sized adults fit comfortably in the back with generous foot room.  Both 12v and household 110 power ports are here and there’s storage all over.  The chairs themselves are comfortable but don’t slide fore and aft to max out foot or cargo room.   When folding flat, they are 60/40, not 40/20/40 which would be handy for skiers.  Bun warmers back here are optional.

Gripes?  Keyless ignition is not standard, neither is iPod integration.  Optional running boards stick out just far enough to scrape my Achilles tendon when leaving the car but don’t leave much of a foot hold when getting in.  Finally, I still find the COMAND operating system distracting to use while driving.

Cargo Room

Power liftgates are pretty popular though some are pretty slow.  If you’re in a hurry, ML’s can be overridden by just pushing or pulling.  A spare under the load floor is nice and not always seen these days.  Small touches like another power port, bag holder and a hook that holds the floor up out of the way are welcome.  A feature I’d love to see here is a big elastic band that holds stuff in place.  There’s also a tab on the hatch’s grab handle to, I don’t know… hang wet swimming trunks to dry?

As far as cargo space, M-Class does quite well, easily swallowing up 11 packs of TP.  For extremely tall or small drivers, the hatch opening height can be set by just holding down the “close” button for a few seconds.

ML350 starts at around 49 grand.  The as-tested price of my BlueTEC tester is $57,605. Considering the luxury, the tech and the powerful diesel engine, that’s not an unreasonable amount of money. As a five-seater M-Class doesn’t quite go up against seven-passenger BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Cadillac Escalade.  There’s always the GL range if you need that ability.  People who don’t want to sacrifice prestige when doing the chores should check out the new M-Class.  And if you happen to be heading to Whistler, give me a shout.