Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Acura MDX, BMW X3, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac SRX, Hummer H2, Land Rover Freelander, Land Rover LR3, Lexus GX 470, Lexus RX 330, Lincoln Aviator, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti FX45, Infiniti QX56, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, Volvo XC90.
They all exist because of the success of the first Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
Before 1997, no luxury carmaker had the guts to build a dedicated luxury SUV. Mercedes not only took the chance, it constructed a plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, just to build the ML320. It was an immediate hit and despite a few early build quality issues, Mercedes sold over 80,000 of them in the first two years.
Eight years and a whole lotta competition later, Mercedes has finally readied that truck's successor. The 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350 and 2006 ML500 are more powerful, handle better and offer more features.
An American-Sized Interior
Longer by 6 inches, the '06 ML rides on a 4-inch-longer wheelbase and is 2 inches wider. There's plenty of room for 6-footers up front and all ML500s come standard with multicontour seats that feel great; ML350s offer them as an option.
The second row is comfortable, roomy and split 60/40, but there's no longer an optional third-row seat, which may handicap the ML against some of the competition.
It's Not Built Like a Truck
The first M-Class used a body-on-frame design that gave it credibility as a truck. Since then unibody construction has been proven to provide a better compromise between capability and comfort. So Mercedes has made the switch, the '06 M-Class is built on a unibody chassis that's stiffer, lighter and better able to deliver Mercedes-like ride quality.
A fully independent coil-spring suspension comes standard, but an adjustable air-spring setup is offered for optimal ride quality. We drove air-spring-equipped vehicles only and their ride quality was plush and responsive. Throw the new ML into a corner and it rolls moderately, understeers predictably and sticks longer than you'd expect. From behind the wheel, it feels lighter on its feet than the original, yet just as stable. Set the air suspension to "Sport" and the ML will hang with a BMW X5, no problem. The new variable-assist steering is nicely weighted and has good feel on center.
Mercedes has also engineered a dedicated options package for off-roaders that adds the Airmatic suspension with adjustable ride height along with a low-range gearbox and locking center and rear differentials. We drove an ML with this package on a rutted, muddy trail and through a foot-deep stream like they were driveways.
More Power Through Seven Speeds
The ML350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower. The ML500 still uses a 5.0-liter V8, but it's been bumped from 288 hp to 302 hp. Both engines use a seven-speed automatic transmission that sends the power through a permanent four-wheel-drive system.
With more power, two extra gears and less weight to push around, Mercedes says the 2006 ML350 will hit 60 mph in 8.4 seconds (seven-tenths quicker than last year's model) and it's more fuel-efficient. The ML500's thirst is the same as last year, but Benz promises an equal jump in performance with a claimed time of 6.9 seconds to 60.
The overall design of the cabin isn't radically different. The most noticeable changes are a revised gauge cluster and the lack of a console-mounted shifter. The latter has been replaced by a small stalk on the steering column. It takes some getting used to, but the change frees up precious cupholder space.
"We needed to incorporate technology and design trends that directly benefit the customer," Dr. Thomas Weber, head of research and development for Mercedes-Benz told us over dinner, and features like the optional iPod dock in the glovebox follow the doctor's orders.
The M-Class is also the second Mercedes model range to offer its unique Pre-Safe system, which can sense an impending collision and actively prepare for it by pulling the seatbelts taut, and it's the first Merc to offer Neck-Pro whiplash-reducing headrests as an option. There's also the usual array of front, side seat-mounted and side curtain airbags standard, along with traction and stability control.
Our only real complaint is the average quality of the interior materials. They're not bad, but they're not great, either. And in a Mercedes they should be great.
Rough Road Ahead
The original ML caught a wave of opportunity that lasted longer than even Mercedes could have ever expected. But the market continues to flood with competitors, making the success of the second generation less assured, so Mercedes will hold prices on the ML350 to below $40K and below $50K for the ML500.
Although it isn't going to change the landscape of the car market, as its predecessor did nearly a decade ago, the '06 M-Class is as good as, or better than, anything out there. Consider Mercedes back in the SUV game.
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