New & Used Mercedes-Benz M Class: In Depth
2009 Mercedes-Benz M ClassEnlarge Photo
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The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is a mid-size luxury SUV that can fit five passengers. It’s manufactured at the Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant, competing with the likes of the Lexus RX, BMW X5, and the Infiniti FX.
Read our review of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz M Class for car prices, specifications, and gas mileage ratings
It'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 named the ML Class, due to legal questions raised by BMW (there's the M3 and others, of course) and Infiniti (M56, anyone?), 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. Built in a new factory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 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 second-generation M Class arrived in showrooms as a 2006 model, with a much-improved look inside and out, and more powertrain choices. With uprated V-6 and V-8 engines, the M Class also gained a new ML 63 AMG edition with even more power and acceleration than the previous sport edition. A diesel ML 320 BlueTEC was added for U.S. customers in the 2009 model year, while a new ML 450 Hybrid appeared in 2010, available only under lease.
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--in fact it was built to a cost, to compete against Explorers and Cherokees--the new version neatly compares 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 turbo-diesel 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 M Class will undergo some mild changes for the 2014 model year, including a change in its diesel offerings. The current V-6 turbodiesel will be exchanged for a new turbocharged four-cylinder diesel that's also being fitted to the new 2014 E Class family of cars.