A family looking for a high end SUV that is both comfortable and capable.
Comparable models in this class:
BMW X5, Hummer H2, Infiniti FX, Land Rover LR3, Lexus GX470, Lexus RX400h, Volvo XC90
When Mercedes-Benz first introduced the original ML320 as a 1998 model, the big buzz was that it was the first Mercedes to be built in the United States in more than 80 years. Would it live up to Mercedes' well-earned reputation for quality? Would it still be a Mercedes? Well, the M-Class proved it was a Mercedes in all respects. Now for 2006, we have the second-generation ML, with a redesigned body, a new engine, a new transmission, and some new features that make it a very interesting vehicle.
First, the redesign. It may take more than a casual glance to recognize the `06 ML350 from the `05 version. There's a new grille, black with a passing resemblance to the classic M-B eggcrate design. The rear end has also had a beautification. I never liked the rear of the old M-Class because I thought it made the SUV look shorter than it really was. The new rear end treatment is not a whole lot different from the past, but it doesn't seem to detract as much as the old design did. From the side, the ML fits nicely into the Infiniti and Lexus profile class, and that ain't bad. I also like the character lines between the fenders and the flared fenders themselves.
Under the hood of my test vehicle is a 3.5-liter V6 pumping out a healthy 268 horsepower. This power gets to the wheels through a 7-speed automatic transmission. Seven speeds. Gosh, I remember when three was a lot. If that's not enough power, you could also get a chest-thumping V8 by ordering the ML500. There are a couple of ways to shift this transmission. First, with a column-mounted lever. It only has three positions - up for reverse, down for drive, and push the button on the end to park. If you finagle it a bit, you can actually find neutral, but park is just as good.
You can also shift using rocker buttons behind the steering wheel. There's one on the left and one on the right. This puts the tranny into manual mode, so you can work your way manually through six of the seven gears.
We found a little bit of transmission lag when we floored the accelerator and asked for maximum power. This lag isn't a problem, especially for an owner who can learn to work with it after a couple of days. I actually found it easier to work with the transmission lag than I did to work with the less-than-normal transmission shift pattern using the lever.
The instrument panel is nice, with white-on-black dials. The speedometer is on the left, the tachometer on the right, with an analog clock at the base of the speedometer and the fuel gauge at the base of the clock. I felt the dials should be reversed. With the steering wheel placed in what I felt was an ideal position, the portion of the speedo between 40and 80 mph was hidden by the wheel. This area of the tach is approximately from 3,000-4,000 rpm, a section where the engine is working but it isn't critical that you know exactly what rpm the engine is turning. In that area, you MUST know your speed, though.
There is tasteful wood trim on the dash that I thought added to the sense of luxury, and at $48,000-plus, the ML is no longer in the economy class. It was around $35,000 when it was originally introduced.
The console is interesting. It is deep and holds a lot of stuff. Bu there are also two horizontal grab rails from the console to the dash. They're stylistic features, but they're also handy when the driver gets exuberant.
Since the M-Class is an SUV, it should be expected to have decent cargo volume. The ML350 does fit the bill, with reservations. For example, I had to put golf bags in at an angle, rather than directly across the rear. I could also have fit a couple of bags in longitudinally, but the rear seats would have had to be folded. There are two well-designed handles in the hatch that can be used for pulling it down.
There is excellent rear seat legroom. The front seats have deep indents in the backs for the rear passengers to put their knees when the front seats are pushed way back. I usually check the rear seats with the front seat set for my comfort level, which is usually back on the stops. There was no need for the knee indents that way. The rear seats also have a fold-down center arm rest, two 12V outlets and HVAC controls.
The outside rear view mirrors have a couple of features that I liked. One is a turn signal light to give additional warning to other drivers or pedestrians. The other is a "fold-in" feature. Both mirrors fold flat next to the body, reducing the width of the vehicle. Therefore, when you're parked, there's less of a target for other people to bump into.
I have always felt a fondness for the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, since I felt I was there almost from birth. I was at the opening of the factory and drove one of the first vehicles off the line. This second-generation M-Class is equal to the reputation of the original. It has looks, performance, and utility. That works for me.