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The Mercedes-Benz M-Class, a stylish utility vehicle that's become something of a status symbol for upscale families in image-conscious, upscale suburbs, has been completely redesigned for 2012.
While the exterior of the 2012 M Class is clearly a more aggressive yet graceful evolution, the interior goes in a somewhat new direction, adopting the gently sculpted lines and swooping curves of Mercedes' sedan instrument panels and complements the look with a 'power dome' center stack. Top and center in the completely redesigned dash is a seven-inch display, flanked by air vents, with the latest version of M-B's COMAND screen-based interface. And to an issue that's been criticized for years, the company has repositioned the turn-signal lever from the 8:00 position to the 10:00 position.
All the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M Class models get re-engineered powertrains, including an all-new, 3.5-liter, 60-degree V-6 in the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML 350. It's better, we think, than most V-6 luxury engines. Overall, power is up to 302 horsepower, and torque is at 275 pound-feet, but what you should know is that the new engine feels perkier than the previous unit wherever it matters; and whether that's from a standing start or in quick passing on a two-laner, it sings up the rev range and works extremely well with the seven-speed automatic transmission. That said, our favorite 2012 M Class model remains the ML 350 BlueTec. If 'wafting' up to speed easily (without downshifts) on the highway, cruising effortlessly near triple digits, and getting gas mileage that won't place a frown on the faces of your more earth conscious friends are all priorities, you'll find this model the best fit, too. M-B has reworked this engine, too, to make 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque.
The rest of the M Class driving experience is quite good. The new electromechanical steering is superb; it doesn't quite have the dead on-center heft that some former M-B systems have had—as well as the remote feel that, puzzled as we might be, the brand had considered a desirable trait—but that's fine. You'll find handling secure and confident, and the variable-ratio rack is handy for parking.
The M Class is still a utility vehicle at heart, so Mercedes-Benz hasn't by any means whittled down this vehicle's towing or basic trail ability. With a tow rating of 7,200 pounds, the 2012 M Class is very capable—especially in torquey BlueTec guise—of getting the jet-skiis out to the lake. Plus, the 4Matic system's electronic, stability-system-linked 4-ETS torque distribution can send nearly all engine torque to whichever single wheel can use it.
Seating in the M Class is about on par with that in other luxury SUVs its size. Taller adults can sit in back, in the outboard positions, though it's still a bit of a squeeze to fit three across. Cushions are well contoured, and the front seats especially are like we expect from Mercedes, with all-day support built in. Rear seatbacks are also now adjustable for rake, and there's more than 36 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats. With the last generation of the ML, Mercedes made considerable advances in refinement and materials, bringing the cabin appointments and ride quality up to par with that of the brand's sedans. In this new third-gen version, it's even better—especially the way everything fits.
What makes it special among rivals is its active and passive safety. Its available Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control is one of the most sophisticated and unobtrusive systems on any vehicle—capable of coming to a full stop with traffic and restarting, and potentially reducing fatigue. Pre-Safe, Lane Keeping Assist, and Blind Spot Assist (all optional) help keep you out of accidents. Attention Assist, which takes tabs on driving style to help identify the signs of drowsy driving—triggering a coffee-cup icon and some warning beeps—is now a standard feature on all M-Class models.
We're still not all that enthused about the latest version of M-B's COMAND screen-based interface, which includes a rotary/button controller, placed just ahead of the driver's right-hand armrest. But it includes a couple of programmable shortcut buttons to make it more comfortable. The new sound system (or upgraded Harman/Kardon system) provide some varied and superb-sounding entertainment, though. They include an SD card slot, 10 GB of audio storage, CD/DVD compatibility, HD radio, weatherband, and Bluetooth audio streaming—as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling. There's also a USB port within the center console.
Among the other standouts among available features is a heated or cooled cupholder that can heat up to 141 degrees F. It did a great job keeping our coffee hot while running the A/C. And there's a new iPad docking station—positioned between the front seats and in view for rear passengers—that will be available first in this product but will soon be available for all Mercedes-Benz models. An Advanced Park Assist system, which helps steer the vehicle back into a parallel-parking space as the driver controls the accelerator and brakes, is also available.
- Smooth, strong, efficient Bluetec
- Plush, isolated ride
- Handles and maneuvers well
- Full roster of tech options
- Attention Assist comes standard
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- Indecisive shifts (Bluetec)
- COMAND interface
- Conservative exterior styling