Like many redesigned vehicles these days, the second-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport utility vehicle is substantially bigger than its predecessor. It's wider, longer and lower for 2006.
Eckhard Cordes, head of the Mercedes Car Group, said the M-Class employs an all-new design yet is pleasingly familiar. The 2006 model is less trucklike in appearance than the original M-Class and promises cultivated performance with its full-time four-wheel-drive system.
Front legroom has increased by 2 inches, and the automaker promises more rear knee room and leg space in the redesigned model. Revised traction control now incorporates downhill driving assist and a hill-holder function. An optional offroad package will be offered.
Two trim levels are available: the ML350 with a V-6 engine, and the ML500 with V-8 power. A height-adjustable Airmatic air suspension is optional. The new M-Class went on sale in spring 2005 in the United States and reached Europe in the summer.
Mercedes-Benz promotes the aggressive wedge shape and the sweeping front fenders of the M-Class. The grille consists of three wide louvers with pronounced air vents and is complemented by a chrome three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star. The front bumper incorporates a guard with recessed square openings.
Two vent grilles on the hood incorporate the fin trim that's common on many classic Mercedes-Benz models. Widely flared wheel arches, angled C-pillars and a sharply angled windshield complete the picture. A prominent rear spoiler and twin tailpipes go in back.
In its redesigned form, the M-Class is 5.9 inches longer, 2.8 inches wider and 0.4 inch lower than its predecessor. Riding a 114.7-inch wheelbase, the M-Class is 188.5 inches long overall.
A black grille and seven-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels are standard on the ML350. The more-powerful ML500 has a silver-colored grille with chrome ribs, chrome door handles and standard five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels. AMG Sport or Appearance packages include 19-inch wheels.
Interior The M-Class seats up to five occupants and has a sport-oriented instrument panel and a multifunction steering wheel. A 60/40-split rear seat creates a level load surface when folded. Cargo volume totals 41.9 cubic feet with the seats up or 75 cubic feet with the backseat folded. Options include Parktronic parking assistance and a DVD-based navigation system.
Under the Hood
Two engines are available in the M-Class. The ML350 features a 3.5-liter V-6 that develops 268 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 pounds-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. A 5.0-liter V-8 in the ML500 generates 302 hp at 5,600 rpm and 339 pounds-feet of torque at 2,700 rpm.
Both engines team with a seven-speed-automatic transmission that uses driver-adaptive shift logic. TouchShift manual controls sit behind the steering wheel. When properly equipped, an M-Class can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Side curtain-type airbags incorporate rollover sensors, and side-impact airbags are also installed. An Electronic Stability Program is standard, and antilock brakes include brake assist.
Despite its undeniably firm suspension, the M-Class recovers smartly from rough spots on the pavement, so the ride is more tolerable than in some SUVs. The M-Class is able to cope with a variety of conditions without turning gentle, which helps impart a premium feel overall.
Somewhat heavy steering is appropriate for the vehicle, and agility ranks a tad above average. Stability isn't an issue. The M-Class stays as flat and sure-footed as most SUVs — and better than many.
Performance with the V-6 is vigorous from a standstill and good for passing and merging. Transmission shifts are generally seamless, but a grabby sensation often emerges when the vehicle slows toward a stop.
Front and rear space is ample. The seats are supportive and comfortable, except for a hard seatback in the center rear position. The front seats have long bottoms. Huge space behind the rear seat is easy to load with luggage, and overall construction feels solid. Wide C-pillars and somewhat wide forward pillars impede visibility somewhat but not severely. The electronic gear selector works easily, but some controls are confusing.