2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Redesigned premium midsize SUV, boasting new features, comes in gasoline-engine or diesel form

Despite persistent concerns about fuel prices, sport-utility vehicles still attract considerable attention in the marketplace. Premium SUVs, in particular—including the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class—continue to maintain a loyal following.

Introduced for 1998, M-Class was the "first luxury SUV," said president/CEO Ernst Lieb during a media program for its 2012 successor. Nearly half a million have been sold, including 50-state BlueTEC diesel versions that debuted in 2008.

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2012 M-Class Styling and Interior Updates

Although the first generation was truck-based, the second (2006-11) switched to unibody construction and delivered "more on-road performance," said product manager Dave Larsen. Redesigned as a 2012 model, the third-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class has changed only slightly in size, but gets a fresh appearance and a host of new features.

Modified styling includes "sharper contours that run through the profile," Larsen said, along with a "much steeper slope toward the rear." Mercedes-Benz's familiar star emblem sits in the center of the three-lamella grille. All chrome elements are standard, and the unique C-pillar of the M-Class remains, re-integrated into the 2012 body. Taillamps now are split, between LEDs and fiber optics.

Seat controls that were mounted low on the seat bottoms have moved to the doors, in easier reach. Cupholders now are heated and cooled. Addressing a frequent complaint, the cruise-control stalk has moved away from its previous position, where it was easily confused with the turn-signal lever, into the 8 o'clock spot. This configuration will be appearing on subsequent Mercedes-Benz models, too.

New standard equipment for 2012 includes heated seats, a power liftgate, and an Agility Control suspension. As before, 19-inch wheels are standard.

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New V6 Gas and Improved V6 Diesel Engines

Beneath the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 hood, a new 3.5-liter gasoline V6 engine operates with direct injection, delivering 302 horsepower (up 13 percent). Torque output has grown by 6 percent, to 273 pound-feet. Mercedes-Benz claims an estimated fuel-economy increase of 13 percent in city driving, to 17 mpg, while the highway figure is 22 mpg (a 10-percent improvement). All M-Class models have 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive, which can send power to a single wheel, fully automatically, when needed in low-traction situations. An electronic selector operates the seven-speed automatic transmission.

Shoppers who would be happier with a diesel can choose the ML350 BlueTEC. Mercedes-Benz's turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel V6, which also has gained power and torque-up 14 percent in both areas-to 240 horsepower and a burly 455 pound-feet. Diesel power raises the fuel-economy estimate to 20-mpg city/25-mpg highway.

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2012 M-Class Safety and Handling

New electro-mechanical steering provides reduced assist at higher speeds, and allows for installation of Parktronic with Parking Assist, which can guide the Mercedes-Benz M-Class right into a parallel-parking spot. An optional Dynamic Handling Package includes an Airmatic air suspension, adaptive damping, and 20-inch wheels. Also included is an Active Curve System with active anti-roll bars. When that system is activated, "only one side of the suspension is affected by a pothole" or when going through a curve at speed, according to Larsen.

Nine airbags are standard. Also standard on the 2012 M-Class is Mercedes-Benz's Attention Assist system, which monitors the driver to detect signs of drowsiness and issue a warning. Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist are available in two forms: Passive, for $850 extra; or Active, priced at $3000. Mercedes' Distronic Plus system with Pre-safe braking, which can detect an imminent collision apply brakes automatically in an emergency, also is available.

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M-Class Driving Impressions

Smooth is the word that leaps immediately to mind when piloting a 2012 M-Class, regardless of its engine. Not only is the ride blissfully genteel on most highway surfaces, but the powertrain is as smooth-operating as just about anything out there.

Almost nothing seems to faze the M-Class suspension, including unpaved gravel roads with deep holes and obstacles. At times on the highway, you could almost believe you're in an easy chair at home-helped by exceptionally comfortable (yet firmly supportive) seats. Long seat bottoms give excellent thigh support, and occupants enjoy abundant headroom.

Enthusiastic performance is expected from the Mercedes-Benz M-Class gas-engine model, and that expectation proved accurate. More surprising was the capability of the BlueTEC diesel version. Abundant energy to pass or merge is delivered seamlessly and promptly, in an utterly refined manner. At high speeds, however, further acceleration with the diesel tones down considerably.

Steering easily with modest effort, an M-Class stays on course without fuss, even on relatively narrow two-lane roads. Lane Keeping Assist (if installed) gives a helpful (non-annoying) warning if you happen to start edging toward the side.

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Mercedes-Benz ML350 and ML350 BlueTEC Pricing

Mercedes-Benz's M-Class SUV somehow managed to retain more than a semblance of refinement and comfort even on a deteriorated gravel road, through ruts and rocks. Reactions are quick and assured.

Even when accelerating, the engine can barely be heard. Not a sign of diesel-engine clatter is evident, unless you step outside and listen closely. Transmission shifts also are barely discernible most of the time.

2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class prices have not increased. The gas-engine ML350 has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $48,990 (plus $875 destination charge). The ML350 BlueTEC diesel edition stickers for $1,500 more. Sales of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class, built in Alabama, began in September 2011. www.mbusa.com

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