The 2012 Mercedes-Benz M Class drives like a good luxury car the majority of the time, with a responsive powertrain, secure handling, confident roadholding, and a smooth, refined character behind the wheel.
Mercedes-Benz never quite got its former V-6 to feel as smooth as the in-line six that preceded it in its cars, but the all-new, 3.5-liter, 60-degree V-6 in the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 is off to a great start—and 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.
There's a lot more to delight in the new M Class other than the powertrain. 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. A vague brake-pedal feel is our only complaint—though the brakes can haul this big ute down from autobahn speeds with total confidence. The ML does feel a little more nimble with the gasoline engine, and when the road turns curvy, the seven-speed automatic doesn't work quite as well with the diesel, but that wouldn't stop us from favoring the ML 350 Bluetec.
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. The suspension is also remarkably versatile for a combination of on-road use or off-roading—such as the dusty trails we saw out in Montana ranch country—with a so-called stroke-dependent setup that is softer when the surface demands it, firmer otherwise for more body control. Later in the model year, you'll also be able to specify an off-road package with an automatically detaching roll-bar system.