Full 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class Review
What's New for 2011
For 2011, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class sees just a few minor changes. Among them are newly styled outside mirrors, the availability of LED running lights and an optional blind-spot warning system.
Few luxury-brand automakers offer such a wide range of crossover SUVs as Mercedes-Benz. Walking into a Benz showroom and looking at crossovers is akin to selecting a gallon of milk at the supermarket; in both cases, you'll encounter more alternatives than you'd likely imagined. Similar to 2-percent milk, the M-Class has long represented the ideal middle ground for most folks.
Back in the late 1990s, the M-Class SUV debuted with a trucklike body-on-frame architecture that spearheaded the luxury-ute invasion. The second, current generation now features unibody architecture for more carlike ride-and-handling dynamics. Roomier than the compact GLK, more rugged-looking than the minivan-like R-Class and less expensive than the larger GL-Class, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class continues to be the just-right choice for many consumers.
The M-Class itself is available in an unmatched variety of flavors. Starting out with the expected ML350 (V6) and ML550 (V8), the line expands with the gonzo 503-horsepower ML63 AMG version, the ML450 Hybrid and the ML350 Bluetec clean diesel. Of all these, the hybrid is the least impressive. Though it offers V8-like power along with respectable fuel mileage ratings of 21 mpg city/24 mpg highway, its added weight means performance is about the same as that of the V6-powered ML350. Its fuel economy also doesn't measure up to the Lexus RX 450h hybrid, which returns 30 mpg city/28 mpg highway.
Apart from the hybrid, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class has a lot going for it, including a high-class cabin, superior construction and that Mercedes-Benz cachet. But a lot of luxury crossovers are similarly impressive. Models like the 2011 Acura MDX and 2011 Lexus RX 350 cost far less, as do smaller entries like the 2011 Audi Q5, Volvo XC60 and Mercedes' own GLK. As for similarly priced and sized rivals, the 2011 BMW X5 and 2011 Porsche Cayenne both offer a bit more involvement for the driver. Overall, there are lots of good options here; the best approach would be to test-drive a couple of alternatives before making your final decision.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a five-passenger midsize luxury SUV available in ML350, ML350 Bluetec, ML450 Hybrid, ML550 and ML63 AMG trim levels. Each name corresponds to a different engine.
All models except the ML63 are equipped similarly with standard 19-inch wheels, a sunroof, automatic wipers, automatic headlights, foglamps, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, eight-way power front seats, MB-Tex premium vinyl upholstery, the dash-mounted COMAND electronics interface, Bluetooth, the TeleAid emergency telematics service and an eight-speaker stereo with a six-CD/DVD changer and an auxiliary audio jack. The ML550 adds different styling flourishes and heated front seats. The ML450 Hybrid adds a gasoline-electric powertrain, slightly different styling, an air suspension and a hybrid system information display.
Options include the Premium 1 package, which includes a rearview camera, a power liftgate, power-folding mirrors, auto-dimming rearview and driver-side mirrors, driver memory functions, a navigation system, voice controls, satellite radio, an iPod interface, HD radio and 4GB of digital music storage. The Premium 2 package includes all Premium 1 equipment plus keyless ignition and entry and a Harman Kardon surround-sound stereo. The Full Leather Seating package includes leather upholstery and ambient interior lighting. The Lighting package adds adaptive bi-xenon headlights (with washers), corner-illuminating foglamps and LED taillights/daytime running lights.
Stand-alone options include 20-inch wheels, front and rear parking sensors, blind-spot assist, a trailer hitch, running boards, a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, heated rear seats and a rear-seat entertainment system.
The ML63 AMG adds to the ML550 an air suspension and adaptive damping system, 20-inch AMG wheels, high-performance tires, upgraded brakes, AMG styling elements, the Premium 2 package, the Lighting package, front and rear parking sensors, extended leather trim, heated and ventilated sport seats and a sport steering wheel with shift paddles.
Powertrains and Performance
The ML350 is available with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (4Matic) and is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. A seven-speed automatic transmission is standard. Mercedes estimates it will go from zero to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. Fuel economy is estimated to be 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 15/20/17 in 4Matic guise.
The ML350 Bluetec has a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 that utilizes 50-state-legal clean-diesel technology. It produces 210 hp and a prodigious 400 lb-ft of torque. A seven-speed automatic and 4Matic are standard. In Edmunds performance testing, we recorded a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds. Its estimated fuel economy is 18/25/21.
The ML450 Hybrid features a 3.5-liter V6, a pair of electric motors and an advanced transmission that has both fixed and continuously variable ratios. The transmission shares its general design with GM's two-mode hybrid systems, though in this case there are eight forward speeds versus GM's four. Total combined output is rated at 335 hp and 381 lb-ft of torque. The estimated 0-60 time is 7.8 seconds and estimated fuel economy is 20/24/22 mpg.
The ML550 gets AWD and a seven-speed automatic standard. Its 5.5-liter V8 produces 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque, which is enough for an estimated 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds. Its EPA-estimated fuel economy is 13/18/15.
The ML63 AMG packs a 6.2-liter V8 good for 503 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque. It's connected to all four wheels via an AMG-tuned seven-speed automatic with manual override shift paddles. In Edmunds performance testing, its 0-60 time was a staggering 4.7 seconds. EPA-estimated fuel economy is, not surprisingly, the lowest of the bunch at 11/15/12 mpg.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes, traction and stability control, hill-start assist and hill-descent control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In Edmunds brake testing, the ML350 came to a stop from 60 mph in 128 feet, while the Bluetec stopped in 121 and the ML63 in 114.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class has not been rated using the government's new, more strenuous crash tests. Its 2010 ratings (which aren't comparable to those of 2011) were a perfect five stars in all frontal and side categories. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the M-Class its best rating of "Good" in the frontal-offset and side crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2011 Mercedes M-Class features one of the finest cabins in its class, with a pleasing design and top-notch materials. Its electronics interface can be a bit frustrating, however. While the menu structure and software are the same, the M-Class doesn't feature the multifunction control knob that more recently introduced Mercedes models do.
Passenger room is impressive, offering more rear legroom than most of its competitors. There's no third row offered, though. With the rear seats in place, there is a total of 29 cubic feet of luggage space. When the seats are folded flat, this expands to 72 cubes -- an average figure for this class of vehicle.
On the road, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is hardly a driver's SUV like the BMW X5. The steering is numb and imprecise, and while handling limits are respectable, the suspension tuning is too soft to inspire confidence in corners. But for typical buyers, the ML's familiar feel of Germanic solidity in a straight line will be reassuring. Braking performance is excellent, and the engines are generally top-notch. The turbodiesel V6 could stand to be more responsive, however.
The ML63 AMG is quite simply staggering. The roaring rumble of the 6.2-liter V8 is almost worth the steep price of admission alone. The suspension, brakes and seat upgrades help make it more driver-friendly than the non-AMG members of the M-Class, but don't expect the handling prowess of BMW's X5 M or Porsche's Cayenne.