Mercedes doesn't do revolution when it comes to the M-class. Instead, the third generation of Mercedes' midsize SUV is noticeably tame evolution, one that emphasizes more efficient engines, a more luxurious cabin and enhanced safety.
On sale this September and still built in Alabama, the new 2012 M-class seeks to blend off-road versatility with the kind of on-road manners expected of a Mercedes sedan. To find out more, we spoke to the development team in Stuttgart, Germany. Here's what they had to say.
Anyone expecting a wholesale shift in Mercedes' design language will be disappointed. This is a familiar-looking M-Class, blending hints of the full-size GL and compact GLK SUVs. The three-pointed star continues to dominate the grille and the prominent shoulder lines lead the way to a rear that emphasizes its width with taillights that echo the E-class.
Jan Kaul, the manager of the interior design, admits the overall concept was deliberately conservative and reflects the car's global appeal. "The biggest markets are Germany and the U.S., but China and Russia are growing fast."
Arguably the most challenging feature is to be found to the rear of the C-pillar, where the angular surfaces give place to an eccentrically curved rear window. "We tried different solutions," says Kaul, "but we wanted to keep some of the influence of the original M-Class." No less of an influence was a desire to optimize the aerodynamics, which Mercedes claims are class-leading. Careful attention was paid to the rear spoiler, the area around the windscreen and the front fenders, which integrate subtle spoilers.
The cabin looks more like an S-Class interior than ever, but seeks to assert a distinctly SUV design language that's more upright and imposing. There's the familiar mix of rotary knobs and switches, topped by a multifunction display screen — all of it a step above the previous switchgear. Hartmut Sinkwitz, Mercedes' curiously titled Director Competence Center Interior Design admits that customers now see the M-Class as an alternative to a traditional sedan and expect a similar level of quality. While the vibe of generations one and two was more utilitarian, the emphasis here is on luxury and ornamentation.
The contrast with the poor quality of the original, 2007 M-Class could not be greater. "The first-generation car was really a stand-alone project," says Sinkwitz. "It was developed by a U.S. team and was influenced by the quality of rival U.S.-based vehicles. This M-Class was designed here in Stuttgart. The perceived quality is just as important as the reliability. This is central to the Mercedes brand."
Mercedes is never short with its options list and owners will be able to choose from a vast array of gizmos and color combinations including napa leather for the panels and some particularly appealing Ash-wood trim. Sinkwitz admits he has some concern over the sheer wealth of choice. While customers will be free to indulge their eccentricities, dealers will be trained to suggest color combinations that remain on the right side of tasteful.
Regardless of its trim, every M-Class will be tailored for four. Mercedes' customer research suggests that while M-Class owners occasionally carry five, they'd rather optimize the comfort of a lucky quartet. "If you need more space, we offer the R- and GL-Class," says Sinkwitz.
Every M-Class will also feature every last safety feature in the Mercedes' tool kit. Highlights of the acronym fest include up to nine airbags and an Attention Assist system that tries to keep you awake if you start to nod off. "In the U.S., 47 percent of M-Class customers are female," says Dr Joachim Schmidt, Executive VP for Sales and Marketing. "For them, safety is a key priority."
Efficiency Is the Key Under the Hood
The M-class might be seen as a gas-guzzling SUV, but Mercedes is talking up its newfound fuel efficiency thanks to a new range of BlueTEC diesel and BlueDIRECT gasoline engines that will be offered in the U.S.
The ML350 CDI gets a new version of Mercedes' 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel. Peak output rises from 231 to 258 horsepower and from 398 to 457 pound-feet of torque. No EPA estimates are available yet, but Mercedes says the engine delivers roughly 32 mpg on the European cycle. Given that around 15-20 percent of M-Class vehicles sold in the U.S. are now diesel-powered, this model could become a much bigger part of the lineup in the coming years.
On the gasoline side, the ML350 4MATIC BlueEfficiency will be powered by a 3.5-liter V6 direct-injection engine rated at 306 hp and 273 lb-ft. Acceleration from 0-60 takes 7.6 seconds, and top speed is 146 mph. It will be joined later by what Mercedes is calling its "international engine," a 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8 offering up 408 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque.
Across the range, Mercedes is claiming a 10 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, achieved through a range of measures. Electro-hydraulic steering is standard, together with auto-stop/start technology connected to a seven-speed automatic transmission, which taken together equate to almost a quarter of the efficiency savings. In Europe, this efficiency drive will manifest itself in an eco-focused model powered by a 2.1-liter turbodiesel offering a range of up to 750 miles with a 23.8 gallon tank. This model won't be crossing the Atlantic, although the engine may feature in a U.S.-bound C-Class.
Farther down the line, there'll be a V8-engined AMG version and a hybrid.
On- and Off-Road Versatility
The project leader for the ML, Dr. Uwe Ernstberger says that "Mercedes customers expect a high level of off-road ability." That's news to us, but Mercedes took the idea seriously enough that it will offer an off-road package beginning next year. It adds an underbody skidplate, two-speed transfer case, center differential lock and an enhanced air suspension that allows a maximum ground clearance of 11.2 inches and a fording depth of 23.6 inches. There is also a Land Rover-style electronic system that provides six transmission modes: one automatic, two off-road and three on-road modes covering winter, sport and trailer-pulling.
Even if you don't opt for the extra hardware, every M-Class will still feature Mercedes' 4MATIC four-wheel drive system along with traction control, and an ABS system that has been tuned for off-road work. Back on terra firma, the ML is promising greater agility. Air suspension is standard but you can upgrade the system to include adaptive damping and an Active Curve system that acts to minimize body roll through corners. Couple this with wheels that go up to 21 inches, and you have an SUV that should deliver plenty of on-road performance.
Mercedes officials claim the key attributes of the new M-Class are defined as "efficiency, capability and safety." This might not be a slogan to excite enthusiasts, but it will no doubt play well to the SUV's core constituency. Mercedes has sold over 1.2 million M-Classes since 1997, so it was never likely to take a big risk. This new SUV is predictably predictable, but that's unlikely to stop it from being a huge success.