First Drive: 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
More luxury, less truck
This isn't a truck anymore. The all-new 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is unibody, not body-on-frame like the 1998-2005 model. But that doesn't matter--most people who care about the structure didn't mistake the previous M-Class as a serious off-roader. This is one of the pioneers of the luxury crossover segment, an SUV designed to safely transport you to and from your suburb, through virtually any weather Mother Nature can serve up.
With the pretentions gone, the second-generation M-Class, the W164 (German car nuts love those alpha-numeric codenames) washes away memories of W163, the first generation. The M-Class's new image is less off-roader and more luxury-transportation module that can handle adverse conditions in optimum comfort for four adults (and one kid). It's as much an oversize prestige sedan as it is a sport/utility, with the tall ride height and easy step-in that the market demands.
The W163 broke ground as a luxury crossover vehicle and quickly hurt itself with early quality issues. The first M was too short on luxury for a Mercedes and didn't have the ride, handling, and refinement expected from a luxury crossover. So the W164 M-Class is new from the ground up. Its optional 5.0-liter V-8 is the only major component that carries over from the prior model, with power upped from 288 horses to 302, making way for the new V-6, with its 46-horse gain over the old 3.7-liter 18-valve. Mercedes figures the ML500 will account for 25 to 30 percent of M-Class sales, with the rest going to the ML350 and its excellent 268-horsepower, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6. Both engines come standard with a seven-speed automatic that has you in third gear before you get across an intersection. Its gearshift is an electronic control on the steering column, making room for two big cupholders in the console.
As for the switch from a "truck" frame, these were never meant to be trail machines, and the new model, available again only with all-wheel drive, is now without the two-speed transfer case, contributing to a 200-pound weight savings in the ML350 and ML500. Still, they're much more capable on bad roads than most people need. A hill-descent control uses ABS sensors and the seven-speed autobox to keep the miles per hour in the single digits on steep downhill runs. The optional Airmatic height-adjustable air suspension raises the body for an extra three inches of ground clearance, up to 77 mph. If you plan to do any dirt driving at all, you'll want to order this option, because the M-Class is also longer, lower, and wider than the truck it replaces. In the 2007 model year, you can recover that 200 pounds by ordering an off-road package, which includes two locking differentials, a two-speed transfer case, and the Airmatic package.
Mercedes has added four inches to the wheelbase and six to the overall length for better interior space, ride, and looks. From stem to stern, Mercedes designers gave style to what was a stodgy, utilitarian vehicle. The grille, in the silver and chrome of the ML500, looks concept-car cool with its 40 openings and truck-style oversize three-pointed star. (The V-6's black grille is less elegant.) The V-8 has brushed-chrome skidplates front and rear, versus the V-6's silver plastic, 18-inch five-spoke wheels (19-inch five-spokes come with an appearance package), and has square chrome dual exhaust tips. Chrome door-handle trim and side-molding trim come standard on the V-8, optional in an appearance package on the V-6.
Cargo space is roughly equal to the old five-passenger model's 72.5 cubic feet, but it's taller and deeper and not as wide, thanks to the new styling. Despite the added length and wheelbase, Mercedes won't cram in a third row of seats. That's because the new model's platform is a launching pad for several upcoming SUVs. The R-Class, arriving this fall, is a longer, more stylish crossover with a choice of two or three rows. The G-Class, scheduled for a 2006 intro, will be the more serious off-roader. All three will be assembled in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which the M has called home for eight years.
You'll forgive (if not forget) the lengthy options list once you hit the road. The new M-Class is buttoned-down and refined. The longer wheelbase and unibody provide a solid, but compliant ride. The view of the hood falls away from the driver quickly, like the previous models, and the steering is precise. For such a big crossover, the ML500 feels small and manageable, and the 302-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 is a lot of engine for it. Low-rpm torque is especially good, making it easy to squirt into cross traffic you'd normally wait to pass. Brakes feel typically Mercedes, which means they're among the best in class.
Our ML500 came with an adaptive damping system. We were happy to keep it locked in the sport setting, although there are subtle, but noticeable differences ratcheting down through the normal setting to comfort. The sport setting will let you go deeper into turns--you'll push (and we do mean push) the M to its tire adhesion limits more easily and confidently. Mid- and comfort settings simply translate to body roll, coming in more quickly and heavily, but not to any level of excess. For the comfort tradeoff on straight roads, it's easier to spot the differences driving over single potholes and manhole covers than on thoroughly rough roads. In the sport setting, the M-Class's rigid body feels go-kart stiff over manhole covers. Even the comfort setting falls well short of being too soft. This is a vast improvement in every way over the old model. Don't give in to the sportier BMW X5, either. If you insist, the M-Class has a sport package available, and our track-test model, so equipped, has more aggressive tires than the more luxury-oriented ML500 we tested on the road with its 225/55R18 Michelins.
It takes about $50-plus to fill up an ML500 or ML350 with premium unleaded, which makes the more economical V-6 an attractive alternative. The new ML350's latest-generation Mercedes V-6 is just 14 horsepower short of the old M-Class's V-8 and 34 horses short of the new 24-valve 5.0-liter. It's the rational choice, and with a base price nearly 20 percent lower than the V-8, belongs in a different sub-segment. The ML350 doesn't have the same sense of urgency of its more powerful brother, and you'll have to be more judicious about pulling out into traffic. But the V-6 is smooth, quiet, and refined. When launch calls for full throttle, it sounds raspy, ripping off clean, satisfying and quick upshifts from the seven-speed automatic at the redline.
The V-6 versus V-8 isn't the only reason for a near-$10,000 price difference, of course. Popularly priced versions, costing about $50,000, won't have full leather for the seats. Our sample had a manual-tilt steering wheel, manual front headrests, and manual tailgate lift/closure, versus power controls in our fully optioned $64,000 ML500. The one infuriating omission is that the ML500 has a handy extra drawer in the center stack of the dash, good for mobile phones and key cards, not included in the ML350. Why? The ML350 also lacked the ML500's optional three-position adjustable suspension damping, but the ML350's handling is plenty decent without the option. It takes a fast curve with substantial roll, but has good grip and a feeling of control and enough feedback to keep you out of serious trouble. The ML350's steering did feel a bit too light on-center, a problem we didn't have with the ML500.
The ML500's base price is $49,220 with destination, while the ML350 starts at $40,270. With so many options offered, $50,000 will be the going price for a typical V-6. That's a lot of money for a model launched eight years ago with a sub-$34,000 base price designed to appeal to those who thought they couldn't afford a Benz. The good news for bargain-hunters is that with high residuals, leasing will again be the easiest way into one of these.
No, the new M-Class doesn't pretend to be a truck. But if you need a crossover and you want a Mercedes, that's good news.
|2006 Mercedes-Benz ML500|
|Location of final assembly||Tuscaloosa, Alabama|
|Body style||4-door, 5-pass SUV|
|EPA size class||Midsize utility|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, AWD|
|Airbags||Front, side, head|
|Engine type||90° V-8, all aluminum|
|Bore x stroke, in||3.81 x 3.31|
|Valve gear||DOHC, 3 valves/cyl|
|Fuel||induction Electronic sequential|
|SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm||302 @ 5600|
|SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm||339 @ 2700|
|Transmission type||7G-TRONIC automatic|
|Transfer-case model||N/A (AWD)|
|Recommended fuel||Midgrade unleaded|
|Track, f/r, in||63.7/63.9|
|Headroom, f/r, in||40.0/40.0|
|Legroom, f/r, in||42.2/40.0|
|Shoulder room, f/r, in||58.0/58.0|
|Total cargo area volume, cu||ft 75.0|
|Back row, seat up||41.9|
|Ground clearance, in||7.9|
|Approach/departure angle, deg 28.0/25.0|
|Base curb weight, lb||4874|
|Payload capacity, lb||1365|
|Towing capacity, lb||5100|
|Fuel capacity, gal||25.1|
|Suspension, f/r||Double A-arm, coil spring/double A-arm, coil spring|
|Steering type||Rack-and-pinion, hydraulic power assist|
|Turns, lock to lock||3.5|
|Turning circle, ft||38.6|
|Brakes, f/r||13.8-in vented disc/13.0-in vented disc|
|Acceleration, 0-60, sec||7.0 (mfr est)|
|EPA fuel economy, city/hwy||15/18 (est)|
|Base price||$50,000 (est)|
|Price as tested||$58,850 (est)|