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The original Mercedes-Benz M-Class gave the automaker its foothold in the SUV market and in America. Legally branded the ML-Class, to avoid problems with BMW and Infiniti, the M-Class was the first vehicle to come from the company's Alabama factory back in 1998. More than a decade later, the ML-Class is in its final years of the current body style, but it's still among the most desirable utes in its class. Priced from about $47,000 up to more than $92,000, it's also the only SUV we know that's available with a choice of gas, diesel, or hybrid powertrains. Originally conceived as an Explorer/Grand Cherokee fighter, the M-Class' competition at its current price point comes from all continents. The challengers include the BMW X5, the Infiniti FX, the Volkswagen Touareg, the Porsche Cayenne, and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The current M-Class bowed in 2006, and it's still fresh and attractive today-with far more visual staying power than the first-generation model. Semi-circular fenders and the long arc of the roofline mash up with an arrow-straight shoulder line and crosshatched grilles. The floating glass around the cargo area is wedged between a sloping roofline and an upturned rear fascia. It's jumpy and almost quirky, but the M-Class look works. It's mated with a more conventional cabin: Oval air vents are embossed on a dash that's very similar to that in the smartly styled GL-Class (they're mechanically related, and built alongside each other, too). You'll look into cut tubes to see big, white-on-black gauges-and maybe take a second to absorb the off-note touches of chrome on the steering wheel. Polished wood trim panels line the bottom of the center stack, the console, and the dash. Most "off-roaders" have grown prettier and more varnished, and the M-Class is, in that way, the biggest transformer of them all.
Bear with us while we walk you through all the different power choices offered by the 2010 M-Class. It's the only sport-ute we know of that offers three V-8 engines-as well as tech-savvy hybrid and diesel variants. The basic ML350 gets a gas-fueled 3.5-liter V-6 with 268 horsepower, ample acceleration times of about 8 seconds to 60 mph, a top speed of 130 mph. It's the only ML-Class ute to come with either rear- or all-wheel drive; the former version earns a 15/20 mpg rating from the EPA, the latter a 16/21 mpg nod. A step up the scale brings you to the ML550 and its 382-hp 5.5-liter V-8. It leaps to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, tops out at 130 mph, and drinks gas to the tune of 13/18 mpg. Both of these models share a seven-speed automatic that ushers out the power urgently and smoothly. Performance is nearly the opposite of what you might expect: The ML-Class utes have communicative steering, a well-controlled ride, and strong braking feel. With the all-wheel-drive system in place (it uses three mechanical differentials and anti-lock braking to maximize traction), the ML-Class can easily handle light off-roading and even tackle some of the more hardcore duties you'd find in Jeep legend and lore.
Drop almost $100,000 and Mercedes will infuse your M-Class with AMG goodness to create the 503-horsepower Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. Largely unchanged, it's distinct from other gas-powered versions for its much stiffer ride, its unapologetic 11/15 mpg fuel economy, and-oh, did we mention?-its Cayenne-fighting supercar performance. The dramatic horsepower boost drops 0-60 mph times to 4.8 seconds, and lifts top speed to 155 mph. Like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, it's a breathtaking performer-clearly the product of engineers with lots of talent and time on their hands.
For a quick boost in fuel economy, we'd recommend the diesel-powered ML350 BlueTEC. With a "clean" diesel underhood, it brings 210 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque to the SUV game. It can run upward of 600 miles on a tank, securely devouring interstate at impressive rates in virtually any weather. The diesel feels just as strong as the V-6 in most cases, while also being the best choice out of all the engines for towing. Fuel economy checks in at 18/24 mpg; performance is almost no different from that of the gas-engine ML350.
Finally, if you're especially keen on technology and gas mileage, you'll want to lease-not purchase-the 2010 ML450 Hybrid, which combines the gas V-6 with two electric motors and nickel-cadmium batteries mounted under the cargo floor. The pairing delivers 335 hp and 381 lb-ft of torque, and delivers 21/24 mpg fuel economy with nearly the same acceleration and top-speed numbers as the V-6 and diesel MLs. We've driven the Hybrid edition and, as with other hybrid SUVs, marvel at the technology at work. The Hybrid's regenerative braking blends seamlessly into the friction brakes, with imperceptible engine starts and stops, and there's silent starting and electric-only mode up to 34 mph. Even the Hybrid's CVT offers a Shift mode that imitates an eight-speed automatic transmission; drivers using "S" mode may literally never know they're driving a hybrid. Fuel economy is the best of the lineup at 21/24 mpg; while other versions can tow 7,200 pounds, the ML450 Hybrid is down-rated to 5,000 pounds towing.
In overall size and room, the 2010 ML-Class is more than competitive with the likes of the X5, Cayenne, and FX. Its wheelbase is 114.7 inches and overall length is 188.5 inches. All versions of the 2010 ML-Class share a common five-seat cabin layout-and standard vinyl seating, a noticeable dent in its equipment list, in our opinion. The front and backseats have good headroom. There's plenty of adult-sized space even in back, though a third person wedged in the middle might have good reason to complain about the lack of shoulder room. There is no third-row seat option; that's the job of the larger GL-Class ute or the hefty-looking R-Class crossover, which also shares its architecture and assembly line with the ML-Class. With the rear seats folded down, cargo volume is 72.4 cubic feet; it's 29.4 cubic feet with the seats upright.
Safety hasn't changed much with the 2010 edition of the ML-Class, but the SUV has lost its Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Chalk that up to the insurance group's changes to its criteria-and the addition of a roof-crush standard that hasn't been tested yet with the ML-Class. The M-Class still has a five-star crash rating and a four-star rollover rating from NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Stability control, anti-lock brakes, and traction control are standard, along with front, side, and curtain airbags. PRE-SAFE, a safety system that senses collisions before they happen, is also now a standard feature on M-Class models. New this year are a standard tire pressure monitoring system and POST-SAFE, which unlocks doors and shuts down the fuel and powertrain after an accident. Options include a set of parking sensors and a rearview camera.
For 2010, the ML-Class carries over a long list of standard and optional features. Vinyl seats are standard on the ML350, along with a power driver seat; cruise control; power windows, locks, and mirrors; dual-zone automatic climate control; an AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability; an auxiliary audio jack; and COMAND voice or knob-driven control for Bluetooth phone and audio controls. The COMAND system is one of the shuttle-jog-style setups that infuriate most test drivers and take an inordinate amount of time to learn. Given what we've seen from the 2011 Ford Edge and its new touchscreen displays, we're ready to call COMAND-and BMW's iDrive and Audi's MMI, too-hopelessly out of touch.
Most ML350s are built with a premium package that includes a hard-drive navigation system with music storage; an iPod connection kit; a power liftgate; a power steering column; a power passenger seat; driver-side power seat memory; a rearview camera; and Sirius Satellite Radio. Heated front and rear seats, a wood-trimmed and heated steering wheel, and a cargo tray are also available. ML550s and ML63 AMGs add most of these features to the standard-equipment list. An optional 610-watt digital Harman Kardon Logic7 audio system and a rear-seat entertainment system with two 8-inch screens, wireless headphones, and an integrated DVD player with dual-source capability are also available on 2010 M-Class models. There's also an available towing package for all versions.
- Two good gas-engined performers
- Two great fuel-conscious alternatives
- One stunning AMG-powered edition
- Handsome, inside and out
- safe performer, too
- Poor fuel economy (ML550, ML63)
- Way more expensive than it used to be