This silver 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350 got me a free cup of designer coffee. No, it didn't wheel itself up to the local caffeine counter and order a tall vanilla nonfat latte, but it did inspire the Lexus RX 330 owner ahead of me in the drive-through lane to pay for my latte. She even gave my ride a Fonzie-like thumbs-up.
It's no wonder that people stop to give the redesigned 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML350 an appreciative second look. In an attempt to turn the sales stampede away from the RX 330, BMW X5 and Volkswagen Touareg, Mercedes has caffeinated the new ML with a dose of modern performance, refinement and style.
The result is a competitive M-Class that's light-years ahead of the old one, but this first-class SUV doesn't come without a significant increase in price. With a base MSRP of $40,470, the 2006 ML350 has jumped above the RX 330 and Touareg, but remains significantly below the X5 which starts at just under $43,000 with an automatic transmission.
Lexus-Like Looker One walk around the ML350 and it seems Mercedes took the Lexus' softer shell along to the drawing table when penning the ML's exterior. Less an upright soldier, and more like a relaxed maiden, the ML350 has flowing lines that billow to a slightly rounder look. But details like the multisurfaced taillamps and the sharp line that slices across the doors to encircle the rear fenders keep the overall design from getting too soft.
Stretched longer and wider, yet with less ground clearance than the old ML, the ML350 also has a more pronounced stance. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin Radial XSE all-season tires complete the look.
Refined Room for Five With its two-tone gray interior, our Mercedes ML350's cabin was finished to perfection and awash in silvery light. Leather-trimmed seats coddle front passengers with the same effortlessness as a relaxing sofa, but are bolstered and firm enough to prevent back fatigue after hours on the road. Optional front-seat heaters ensure passenger comfort.
Nestled in the center stack is an optional DVD navigation system integrated with a telephone and a 400-watt Harmon Kardon stereo system. At first glance the system seems more daunting than a barista's espresso machine, but after a couple of minutes of random button pushing, it's refreshingly intuitive. The '06 M-Class is also the first Mercedes that offers iPod connectivity. See the stereo review for more details.
Large helpings of bird's eye maple wood and brushed aluminum trim help define the handsome, sporty stack and console which has been modernized to include two of the largest cupholders man has ever seen.
In the back, passengers have over 39 inches of legroom to stretch their gams, which is nearly 6 inches more than the RX 330 offers and almost four more than found in the X5's rear seat. Rear shoulder room is also the widest among the competition. Climate controls are mounted behind the front center console, and there's a center armrest in the rear seat that folds down to display cupholders large enough to hold a couple of road javas.
Fancy Carry-All Although the 2006 ML350 is nearly 6 inches longer and 4 inches wider than its predecessor, its storage area has been cut to 72.4 cubic feet when the 60/40-split rear seat is folded down. Mercedes engineers chose to allocate the extra inches to the passenger cabin instead of the cargo bay. While the smaller RX 330 boasts a maximum 85 cubic feet of space, the Benz isn't at the bottom end of the spectrum either. The Touareg, which is closest in overall exterior dimensions to the ML350, offers slightly less.
The reduced capacity didn't bother us a lick. The ML350 easily handled everything from a mountain of camera gear to a gaggle of dancing girls' costumes, and with a carpeted bay, there was no chance the little tulle dainties would get sullied. Our only cargo area complaint is the lack of a power rear hatch. The ML's fifth door is heavy and can hardly be closed with one hand in a single motion.
Smaller Engine, More Power The ML350's new 3.5-liter DOHC V6 makes 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque compared to the old ML's 3.7-liter SOHC V6 which pumped out just 232 hp. The Lexus and BMW produce considerably less power at 230 and 225 hp, respectively, although the trade-off is better fuel economy ratings.
Mercedes' new engine is more fuel-efficient than the old V6 and helps the ML earn a Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) rating, but it still only scores a combined city/highway rating of 18 mpg compared to the Lexus' 21 mpg figure.
Gone is the traditional console-mounted shifter and five-speed automatic transmission from the previous ML. Instead, the new ML350 gets a seven-speed automatic with an electronic shifter mounted to the steering column, similar to the setup in a BMW 7 Series.
It took some getting used to since you push a button for "Park" and it doesn't offer the same physical motion that confirms each gear change. What you get instead is a light beep and a grinding metallic noise as it engages drive or reverse. We're not sure if the noise was unique to our test vehicle, or if the transmission was supposed to sound like that, but we do know it was annoying.
Mercedes also put dual rocker buttons on the backside of the steering wheel for shifting gears manually, but the seven-speed tranny is geared so well and timed so perfectly, you won't need to bother.
Driving Dynamics That powertrain is as good as it gets in a V6 SUV. On the road, the ML350 possesses plenty of passing power and it feels quick on its feet around town. At the track it recorded a 0-60 run of 8.2 seconds, which is a tenth of a second quicker than the time BMW reports for its X5 3.0i with an automatic. If you want more punch off the line, Mercedes also offers the V8-powered ML500, which sends 302 hp through the same seven-speed transmission.
Steering is precise, but doesn't offer much feedback and feels a little dead in the center. The brakes, however, supply a surefooted pedal and stop this large SUV from 60 mph in an impressively short distance of less than 129 feet.
Despite some body roll, the 4,788-pound, all-wheel-drive ML is a predictable and stable handler. When switched off during instrumented testing, the stability control program would still interfere during slalom runs, which kept the Benz at a cruising speed of 57.5 miles per hour through our coned course.
Overall, the ML just feels good around town. It's easy to maneuver and park, unlike some large, unwieldy SUVs, but it still offers a solid sense of luxurious security.
Double Latte With Extra Yummy Foam Mercedes has gone back to the ML drawing board and come away with a total package that offers much to recommend itself. A brightened and refined cabin, spacious cargo bay and a solid if not exciting powertrain combine to make the ML350 a success. But front-runners aren't always the most economical choice. Just like a Starbucks latte, the Mercedes-Benz ML350 may not be the cheapest choice in town, but it will make your taste buds tingle.
System Score: 9.5
Components: The premium 400-watt Harman Kardon Logic7 audio system available in the ML350 (included in the $1,080 Entertainment Package) is nothing short of fabulous for an SUV. The key pieces are an in-dash head unit with an LCD display that flips open to reveal a single CD slot with MP3 capability, a subwoofer, 12 speakers placed throughout the cabin, and a six-disc CD changer that is mounted in the glovebox. The setup employs digital sound processing, seven-channel surround-sound technology and satellite control buttons conveniently located on the steering wheel.
The optional iPod Integration Kit provides a harness in the glovebox that charges your iPod and ties the portable MP3 player in with the factory stereo. Menu, artist and playlist information are displayed on the navigation screen, and steering wheel controls make changing tracks a breeze. It works with any of the docking port-equipped iPod products (Regular, Photo and Mini), but does not work with any other brand MP3 player. The kit costs $300, and installation should take about an hour at any authorized Mercedes-Benz dealership.
Performance: Audio quality doesn't get much better than this, but as nice as this system is, you can't adjust the midrange, just the bass and treble. The surround-sound impression is surprisingly good and offers richer, fuller sound for all seating positions, although the standard sound with surround turned off is nothing to complain about either.
We have complained before about the buttons that control this system, and we haven't changed our minds. Many of them are labeled by adjacent text in the display panel that can require more eyes-down concentration than we like in a moving vehicle. Mercedes has eased the ergos to an extent by putting some functions on steering wheel controls and some readouts in another display in front of the driver, but the satellite controls still require a two-step process to seek preset stations.
Other small things, like the scan button that previews 9 seconds of each song as it scans the tracks on a CD and the option to mix CD tracks like you would on an iPod Shuffle, make up for it.
Best Feature: Power with clarity.
Worst Feature: Preset buttons are a reach across the display screen.
Conclusion: After a few minutes of random button pushing, the system is easy to operate and provides sound quality you'd be proud to have in your home. — Kelly Toepke
Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says: What does it take to make a great premium SUV in today's highly competitive market? Strong power? Carlike ride and handling? High-tech features? Luxury amenities? The answer, of course, is "yes" as in "yes, all of the above must be present, and that's just for starters."
The ML350 has each of those characteristics, so it meets the baseline requirements of a "great premium SUV" in 2006. But so does the Acura MDX, BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Lexus RX and Volvo XC90. But those other cars also possess traits specific to their brands. The Acura and Lexus have whisper-soft cabins at highway speeds and ultrarefined drivetrains, plus they offer strong value if you go easy on the options list. The BMW has superb driving dynamics, as does the Cadillac. The Volvo has benchmark safety features, not to mention a body structure capable of withstanding impacts from, say, a low-flying meteor.
With the ML I can't think of anything truly compelling about the vehicle, and at the same time I didn't appreciate the gremlinlike noises it made when using the electronic shifter, nor was I a fan of the relatively soft suspension and the somewhat weak power just off idle (though the 3.5-liter engine felt stronger at mid- to high-range speeds).
Without driving the M-Class back-to-back against its competitors I can't identify anything truly wrong with the vehicle. Problem is, I can't think of anything truly right about it, either.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says: There's nothing really wrong with the new ML350. It's a light-year or two ahead of the V6 Volkswagen Touareg I drove recently, and it's so much better than its predecessor that comparing the two is just futile. Still, for my 48,000 simoleons, as Boss Hogg used to say, I want more.
The problem is I'm not sure what I want more of. The M's drivetrain is exceptional, its seating is perfect and its new look is as modern as anything out there, if not exactly trendsetting. I can also give props to its fit and finish and its ergonomics, and I really like the interior's new look, which includes simple instrumentation and more aluminum trim than a cyborg sent from the future.
Interior space isn't the issue either. The ML swallowed my very pregnant wife, our very hyper 2-year-old and our very hairy pound puppy with ease. Still, something is missing, and I just can't put my finger on it.
Wait a minute. I know. Despite very good driving dynamics, this is the first Mercedes-Benz that I can't really remember driving after I drive it. It's pretty wonderful in every measurable way, but it's somehow uninteresting at the same time. It's the first Benz that feels sanitized for my protection.
What's next, a Lexus teeming with personality? Hey, at this point nothing would surprise me.