New & Used Mercedes-Benz M Class: In Depth
2015 Mercedes-Benz M-Class (ML63 AMG)Enlarge Photo
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The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a mid-size luxury SUV that can sit up to five passengers. It’s manufactured at Mercedes' American assembly plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
With powertrains ranging from turbodiesels to twin-turbo V-6s to the ne plus ultra V-8 in the ML63, the M Class is a rival for SUVs like the Range Rover Sport, BMW X5, and Porsche Cayenne.
MORE: Read our review of the 2015 Mercedes-Benz M ClassIt's a luxury vehicle, first and foremost, but the M-Class was in fact envisioned as a direct challenger for the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer. In the 1990s, Mercedes-Benz saw its owners defecting to American brands that sold the new, popular SUVs--utility vehicles not offered by the German automaker. Egged on by their success and by the success of BMW's new assembly plant in South Carolina, Mercedes embarked on its own transplant operation and planned its own off-road sport-ute, which made its debut in 1998.
More than a decade later, the M Class is still among the most desirable utes in its class. The challengers include the BMW X5, the Infiniti FX, the Volkswagen Touareg, the Porsche Cayenne, and even today's Jeep Grand Cherokee. In its latest iteration, the M Class has overcome some of its teething problems to offer a balanced mix of space, utility, and luxury.
Officially badged ML due to legal questions raised by BMW (with the M3 and others, of course), the M Class gave the automaker its foothold in the SUV market and in America. The first consumer-driven SUV for the brand--the military-derived G-Class aside--the M Class brought a luxury touch to the class, with either V-6 or V-8 engine options, a five-speed automatic, and a new type of available all-wheel drive that used anti-lock braking and not differential locks, to limit wheelslip. Diesel engines and manual transmissions were offered on European-spec vehicles, and an AMG edition, the ML 55, was added late in the first M Class' lifespan.
In its first generation, from 1998 to the 2005 model year, the M Class was a sales success. However, its quality proved to be a sore spot for customers and for the company. The M-Class was plagued by glitches and design flaws in its first few years. Some were solved with a mild reskin in 2002, but it wasn't until the company refurbished the vehicle and the plant in 2005 that its objective and subjective quality met expectations.
The 2006 model year brought a second-generation M Class. The new model had much sleeker sheetmetal as well as a wider array of engine choices. Improved six- and eight-cylinder powertrains were joined by the top-dog ML 63 AMG, sporting a wonderfully powerful and sonorous 6.2-liter V-8. The 2009 model year brought the first diesel ML to U.S. customers, the ML 350 BlueTEC, and for a short time in 2010 Mercedes offered an ML 450 Hybrid for lease to its customers as a sort of pilot program.
In its second generation, the M Class grew somewhat longer and cabin space improved. Quality has seen major upgrades, particularly in cabin trim and fit. While the old M Class seemed more utilitarian, the new version neatly compared with other upscale utes like the BMW X5.
An all-new, third-generation M Class model was introduced for 2012. While its exterior is clearly a restrained evolution of the previous M Class models, its interior takes a somewhat new direction, adopting the gently sculpted look of Mercedes' sedan interiors. A new-generation V-6 makes 302-horsepower in the ML 350, while a revamped turbodiesel makes 240 hp but a more relevant 455 lb-ft of torque. No compromises were made in trail prowess or towing ability, while the M Class adds a collection of safety-tech options--plus standard Attention Assist. Heated and cooled cupholders, Advanced Park Assist, and excellent Harman/Kardon sound all add to the package, making it one of the most luxurious choices for those not needing a third-row seat.
For 2013, a lower-priced rear-wheel-drive version of the ML 350 was introduced, and the On- and Off-Road Package arrived, with a dual-range transfer case, diff lock, and six transmission settings. Multi-contour seats with massage were introduced, and the mbrace2 next-generation telematics system was introduced, with Google local search and Street View, plus other apps. Even the Pope got a new M Class--with its own set of upgrades--for 2013.
The most recent changes to the M-Class downsize two of its powertrains. The previous 240-hp turbodiesel V-6 has been replaced by a 200-horsepower four-cylinder turbodiesel. Also, the powerful V-8 ML 550 is now replaced by the ML 400, with a 329-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 also found in most other Mercedes-Benz models beginning in 2015.
Mercedes has confirmed a coupe-like version of the M-Class. It is supposed to go up against the BMW X6 and have a similar profile, giving up some cargo room in back for the sportier look. It is likely to arrive along with the refreshed M-Class, which should carry the new moniker as well.
Mercedes also announced plans to renovate its model designations, focusing mostly on SUVs and crossovers. Most of the off-roaders will get a name that begins with GL and ends with the letter of the Mercedes sedan that is closest in size—for example, the M-Class becomes the GLE-Class, as it is sized most close to the E-Class family. Clunky names like BlueTec for diesels and big Hybrid badging will be replaced by a trailing d or h, respectively. The new names will first appear on the vehicle we currently call M-Class when it is refreshed soon; the planned X6-fighter will launch at the same time, assuming the name GLE-Class Coupe.