Pros: Finely appointed cabin; long list of amenities; excellent seating; availability of a clean-diesel engine; aggressive exterior styling

Cons: Steep learning-curve for COMAND system; absence of third-row seating

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class has long served as the flagship of the midsize luxury SUV segment. But with competition ramping up, it was time for the ML to make some enhancements. The three-pointed star has concentrated on power, performance, fuel economy and interior upgrades. Mercedes slightly massaged the exterior but kept the ML's familiar brawny outer appearance. The 2012 version has a more aggressive character with newly chiseled body lines.

The ML350 and ML350 Bluetec are both now more powerful and more efficient. And for an even greater infusion of performance, the V8-powered ML550 and the supercharged ML63 AMG join the lineup in early 2012. An M-Class hybrid will not be offered as part of the current model range.

The interior of the M-Class retains its high-quality, well-crafted look and feel, but it has been notably stepped up. Purposeful styling cues and upgraded upholstery give the cabin more opulence. The M-Class is even more of a benchmark for upscale motoring now.

Although it's billed as "all new," in many ways it has not changed. Modifications to the ML350 are mindful yet subtle, making it a better vehicle without changing the things that shouldn't change.

Comfort & Utility

The M-Class's cabin has long set the bar for other luxury carmakers. It is plush, well contented and attractive. The two-tone treatment is particularly eye-catching, as are new quilted leather seating surfaces and wood trim options. The control layout buttons have been redesigned for better feel and improved ergonomics.

 For the five passengers the ML350 makes space for, there is an abundance of legroom and headroom. Unfortunately, the M-Class doesn't have an available third row, shutting itself down as an option for those who want seven-passenger seating.

To optimize comfort, front seats offer eight-way power adjusters and heat, and the rear seats recline. All seats are well contoured and padded to minimize fatigue on the daily commute or longer road trips. Standard vinyl upholstery can be upgraded to various stitched leather seating choices.

Other notable convenience features include a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, heated side mirrors, "hot and cold" cup holders and a panoramic sunroof .

Cargo space is adequate but not excessive, intended to fit luggage for five. But it might be a tight fit. The interior packaging makes the M-Class a smart choice for couples who like to go places with other couples, or for families of five or less.  But if a third row or greater cargo space is required, shoppers should take a look at Mercedes's larger GL-Class.

Technology

As always, the M-Class offers a wide array of technology features aimed at convenience and entertainment.

Standard amenities include Bluetooth, an eight-speaker stereo with USB connectivity and the Mercedes COMAND system for electronic functions. As on other Benz models, COMAND has a steep learning curve and is sometimes frustrating to operate (similar to BMW's iDrive in its early iterations).

Notable options are a voice-controlled hard-drive navigation system, a backup camera, a premium Harman Kardon sound system and digital music storage.

On the advanced lighting front, the ML350 can be armed with bi-xenon headlights and cornering illuminating lamps to see the roadway before a turn is fully completed.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Both conventional and Bluetec versions of the 2012 ML350 offer more power, greater efficiency and standard 4Matic all-wheel drive.

The standard ML350 gets its power from a 3.5-liter V6 producing 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. It utilizes a seven-speed automatic transmission and yields fuel economy of 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway.

The ML350 Bluetec clean diesel variant has a smaller carbon footprint than the standard ML350. It is powered by a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 that makes 240 hp and an axle-grinding 455 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy is 20/25 mpg.

Coming in early 2012 are a pair of high-performance M-Class SUVs. The ML550 will arrive with a potent 402-hp V8, while the ML63 AMG will get its power from a massive 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 making 518 hp.

Safety

In addition to its solid construction, the M-Class protects occupants with front, side, head curtain and driver's knee airbags. The front seats have active head restraints to minimize the potential of whiplash in a crash.

Mercedes fits the M-Class with its mbrace emergency telematics and PreSafe system. PreSafe makes split-second adjustments to maximize passenger protection when it senses an unavoidable accident about to happen.

Driver assistance technologies include Blind Spot Warning, Lane Departure Warning and adaptive cruise control. Unfortunately, the ML350 doesn't offer Night View with Pedestrian Detection, a feature available on the brand's top sedans.

Driving Impressions

The ML350 and ML350 Bluetec are each sublime in their own right. The conventional ML350 displays strong, uniform power delivery throughout the rev band, while the Bluetec launches like a rocket from zero and then fizzles a bit at the top end.

The upcoming ML550 and ML63 AMG are expected to be serious high-performance contenders. But does an SUV really need those performance credentials? We wonder.

On normal roads and highways, the M-Class's ride is very smooth thanks to its unibody architecture. An optional adaptive suspension with active damping allows the driver to select a firmness setting based on style of driving and type of road.

The M-Class has impressive handling, especially for a taller vehicle. Steering is well weighted, and there's very little body roll. Overall, the M-Class feels well planted and substantial.

The M-Class is not really intended for off-road driving, although it is somewhat capable. It is more geared for inclement road conditions, thanks in part to its 20-inch wheels.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW X5 - Comparable to the M-Class in price and equipment, but the X5 is more of a driver's car with a stronger emphasis on handling dynamics. The X5 is also a bit more viable for off-pavement driving.

Porsche Cayenne - Offers a more engaging driving experience than the M-Class, whereas the M-Class delivers a plusher ride. The interior of the M-Class is more refined and aimed at comfort over sport. 

Acura MDX - The M-Class has more power and performance, better ride and handling and a higher-quality interior. But Acura's all-wheel-drive system is better than Benz's 4Matic, making the MDX more capable in colder climates. The MDX is also less expensive.

AutoTrader Recommends

The ML350 Bluetec is our choice. This advanced 50-state-legal clean diesel offers better fuel economy and a smaller carbon footprint than its gasoline-powered counterpart. It also has more torque than a lot of high-performance cars, making it an absolute delight in every day driving, especially when launching from traffic lights or executing a highway passing maneuver. The ML350 Bluetec is green, efficient and powerful off the line while still offering the luxury and refinement for which the M-Class is well known. It is enigmatic indeed. 

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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