The words "new Mercedes-Benz" and "bargain" rarely crop up in the same sentence. And with the 2012 M-Class, representing the third generation of this premium mid-size crossover SUV, where interior and exterior quality take several steps upward and forward, it's all the more remarkable that they should do so here. Twice.
Pricing for this new model starts at $49,865 including destination charges, which just happens to be the same as the outgoing vehicle. In either gasoline or diesel guise, the new ML has cast off its previous individual styling to conform with a more corporate look, plus a couple of chrome skid plates. There's some resemblance to the larger GL, but compared with generation two, this version is one inch longer, 0.5 of an inch wider and 0.75 of an inch lower. Yet it retains a distinctive C-pillar design and its curvier looks do not come at the expense of passenger or luggage space, both of which are plentiful.
A new dashboard layout looks unmistakably Benz-like: classy, tidy and fashioned from decent materials. Controls for the front seat adjusters are now set into the door, just like other Mercedes products. The whole interior forces all recollections of the first generation - with its patchy build quality and unattractive plastics - into a fog of half-forgotten memories. While crashing and thumping over the mud and ruts of an off-road section, the new dash fails to let out even a single little squeak or creak, it has been put together that well.
And this is no happy exception. Every aspect seems to meet the same high standards, from paintwork to ride comfort. All road surfaces are managed with a capable composure, insulating occupants from such vagaries as pot holes or expansion joints. Mercedes-Benz offers its Dynamic Handling Package ($5,150) with adaptive air suspension, for more spirited SUV drivers, but the standard setup works so well - already exhibiting a steadfast resistance to body roll - that many buyers may choose to spend their options budget elsewhere, like navigation, a rear-view camera, blind spot alerts, or heated/cooled cup holders. Although the handling pack does include an active curve control to mitigate any potential rollover situation.
Don't worry about saving up for a power lift gate, however; that's standard equipment. So are the heated front seats, seven-speed automatic transmission, eucalyptus wood trim, Bluetooth and driver attention assist.
The biggest decision might come down to engine choice. A 3.5-liter V6 makes 302 horsepower for the 2012 ML350 4Matic (all-wheel drive), returning 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway. It's perfectly adequate for a machine that wears the legendary three-pointed star, a badge synonymous with sophistication and strength.
One of the few diesel powertrains legal in all 50 states is the Mercedes-Benz system of the ML350 Bluetec 4Matic. After a radical re-working, this smooth-running, virtually silent, 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 develops 240 hp and a punchy 455 pound-feet of torque, the latter kicking in at just 1,600 rpm. Transposed to the tarmac, it means the engine can deliver much of its muscle with a ready eagerness, surging from low speeds to high in a deceptively short time. A deception whose colluding partners are the whisper-quiet cabin and calm, efficient demeanor of the chassis.
In the 2012 M-Class, this Bluetec engine is good for 20 mpg in the city, 25 on the highway. It requires periodic refills of its exhaust-cleansing urea fluid, but that's easily dealt with through a regular maintenance program.
For owners of older M-Class vehicles, the 2012 version makes upgrading a no-brainer. For drivers of other brands who have been wary up until now, it's time to put this model on the short list.