The best-selling SUV in Mercedes' stable has been significantly redesigned for 2009 with exterior and interior styling changes, slight efficiency boosts, new and upgraded features and one of the first diesel models clean enough to be sold in all 50 states. The four trim levels are: the ML350 with a V-6 engine; the ML550 and ML63 AMG, both with V-8 power; and the ML320 Bluetec, which is a cleaned-up version of the earlier ML320 CDI. The ML's competitors include Audi's Q7, BMW's X5 and Land Rover's LR3.
Almost all the exterior changes make the SUV look lower and broader. The grille is lower and the fog lights are farther apart, for example. The stainless-steel skid plates — front and rear — draw the eye downward. One exception is the new side mirrors, whose signal lights have grown and spread, threatening to overtake the entire mirror enclosure. The headlamps are a new shape, and the taillights have smoked lenses. Roof rails are now standard; the cross members that make a proper roof rack are optional.
The dual exhaust comes with standard oval tailpipes; there are rectangular ones in the ML550 and with the ML350's sport option package. Nineteen-inch alloy wheels are standard. The ML550's are also 19s, but they're AMG-branded (even if it's not an AMG model). The ML63 AMG's wheels are 20 inches in diameter. Optional are 21-inch AMG wheels.
The ML63 is distinguished from the other models by a high-gloss black grille with chrome accents. The AMG-branded steering wheel is also new.
The M-Class accommodates up to five occupants in seats redesigned for 2009. The powered front seats include a driver's-side four-way power lumbar adjustment. The dashboard is trimmed in what Mercedes calls Artico imitation leather or in genuine two-tone Nappa leather. Artico also lines the doors. Wood trim choices include burr walnut or poplar, the latter with a bird's-eye look or anthracite, a gray-toned finish. The four-spoke steering wheel has improved stereo and setup controls.
A 60/40-split rear seat creates a level load surface when folded. Cargo volume totals 29.4 cubic feet with the seats up and 72.4 cubic feet with the backseat folded. Options include Parktronic parking assistance and a DVD-based navigation system.
The Comand interface — which controls the navigation system, stereo and other functions — has been upgraded with better menus and additional features. MP3 players can be attached to the surround-sound stereo. A backseat video system with wireless headphones is also optional.
Under the Hood
Four engines are available in the M-Class. The ML350 features a 3.5-liter V-6 that develops 268 horsepower. The ML550's V-8 makes 382 hp, and the ML63 AMG gets 503 hp from a 6.2-liter V-8. The ML320 Bluetec diesel is a 3.0-liter V-6 that produces 210 hp and 398 pounds-feet of torque. Though figures aren't yet available, Mercedes says the ML-Class' fuel efficiency is slightly higher overall. The diesel version should be roughly 20 percent more efficient than the ML350 gas version.
All engines team with a seven-speed automatic transmission. TouchShift manual controls sit behind the steering wheel. When properly equipped, an all-wheel-drive M-Class can tow up to 7,200 pounds.
Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are standard, as are side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags that deploy in the event of a side impact or a rollover. The front seats have active head restraints. The Pre-Safe system is standard. It pre-tensions seat belts, moves the seats into a safer position and closes the sunroof if its forward-looking radar senses an impending collision.