Mercedes-Benz caught the world's luxury automakers flat-footed when the ML320 first appeared on the scene in 1997.
The vaunted Mercedes selling a passenger truck? Unheard of!
The M-Class, arguably the first luxury sport utility behind Range Rover, was an immediate hit, kicking off a whole range of midsize SUVs with high-end appeal.
But success was fleeting when the M-Class racked up a dismal record for reliability. That was surprising because the basic mechanicals came from the durable E-Class sedans and the SUV was built in a brand-new Alabama plant.
The problems set off a sales slump for Mercedes, which the company has overcome in recent years along with bringing vast improvements in the M-Class' repair record.
The M-Class is new for 2006, redesigned with a sporty flair that was lacking in the original boxy design, which some said looked too much like a minivan. There also has been significant improvement in drivability, with more stable handling and steering that feels lively instead of dull, an issue in the previous ML.
In all driving conditions, from highway cruising to trail hopping, the ML has the kind of rock-solid feel that characterizes the German automaker's vehicles, often described as "vaultlike." The interior also feels rugged and substantial.
The SUV tested here was the least expensive of the M-Class, an ML350, powered by a V-6 engine and base-priced at less than $40,000. But watch out for those options, which are expensive and quickly add up, pushing the tester perilously close to $50,000.
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PERFORMANCE: The 3.5-liter V-6 is muscular and refined, befitting the ML350's sophisticated aura. With 268 horsepower on tap, one might ponder the need for the pricey, V-8-powered ML500 or the new AMG hot rod, ML63.
All the engines require premium, and the V-6 gets 16 city and 20 highway, not great but not horrible.
The ML350 comes with Benz's new seven-speed automatic transmission, which is unobtrusive and responsive. Why seven speeds, you might well ask? Better fuel mileage and improved engine performance because it keeps the motor running in its sweet spot on the rpm range.
Still, it reminds me of the comedy film Spinal Tap and the band's amps that turned up to 11. Say the next line in a fake English accent: "But we got seven . . . "
DRIVABILITY: With a plethora of electronic enhancements to prevent skids, wheel spin and brake issues, the ML350 drives with remarkable precision. Body sway is controlled; the steering feels right on the money, and maneuverability is responsive.
STYLING: The new chiseled look with its sharply canted rear follows the trend in this class of SUVs but looks distinctive and unmistakably a Mercedes.
INTERIOR: Every feature, option and safety enhancement known to modern man, and then some, are included or available in the ML320. One thing missing is an optional third row of seating, made difficult by the SUVs new rear dimensions.
The cabin is attractively durable looking, in Mercedes' fashion, with plenty of space for regulation-size humans in all seating positions. The seats are especially comfortable.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly improved and now with a decent record for reliability, the M-Class continues as one of the premium class acts in the SUV world.
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Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport utility, all-wheel drive.
Engine: 3.5 liter V-6, 268 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 258 pound-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.
Wheelbase: 114.7 inches.
Overall length: 188.5 inches.
Curb weight: 4,623 pounds.
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds.
EPA rating: 16 city, 20 highway.
Highs: Refined drivability, engine power, new styling.
Lows: Pricey options, lingering reliability questions, modest gas mileage.
Base price: $39,750.
Price as tested: $48,825.
* Trim package, $2,200.
* Sunroof package, $1,390.
* Entertainment package, $1,080.
* Heated front seats, $690.
* Iridium silver paint, $690.
* Sirius satellite radio, $500.
* Trailer hitch, $490.
* Power folding mirrors, $75.
* Shipping, $729.
For more on the Mercedes-Benz ML350, go to autos.azcentral.com.