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21 June 2011

“We haven’t all started eating tofu.” Standing on stage to introduce the new 2012 M-class, Mercedes-Benz head and Daimler chairman Dr. Dieter Zetsche, always the performer, draws an association to car buying. He explains that people aren’t willing to give up what they really want, that instead of everyone eating healthier, more eco-conscious foods, we’ve worked to make the things we like more responsible through new practices and technologies. “People aren’t all going to give up their SUVs for small cars, either, so we must make them more responsible.” He, along with everyone we talk to at Mercedes-Benz on our visit to Stuttgart, even continue to call the ML an SUV, as opposed to the more politically-correct and popular term, crossover. But can the company’s latest model speak for itself?

Saving the world one mile-per-gallon at a time starts with a good engine, but only the Europeans will get to appreciate the fuel-sippingest of the MLs. Known as the ML250 Bluetec, it uses a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder turbodiesel making 204 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, figures that almost match the outgoing ML350 Bluetec’s figures of 210 and 400, respectively. By Europe’s ratings, it is good for 6.0 liters of fuel used per 100 kilometers. It’s tough to estimate American numbers, but using the fact that the new ML350 Bluetec achieves 6.8 L/km there and an estimated 25 mpg highway here, we can estimate the 250 might do 28-29 mpg on the same cycle.

The trend among German product planners has been to use a performance wow-factor to lure Americans back into diesels, but we’d like to see Mercedes take a risk here and offer both diesel MLs, allowing buyers to vote on the efficiency-versus-performance debate. Of all people, a middle-aged customs officer at the Atlanta airport voiced his unprovoked desire for the efficiency champion.

Alas, we Americans will have two familiar engine choices when the ML arrives in September of this year, though both have been thoroughly updated since the last go-around. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but the cheaper version will surely be the gas-powered ML350. While this engine matches the outgoing unit’s displacement, it now benefits from direct-injection technology and produces 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, respective increases of 34 and 15. Fuel economy jumps from 15/20 mpg to estimated figures of 17 and 22. The Germans again are keeping a more efficient engine for themselves, though we are the ones to blame. A European version of this engine uses a leaner homogeneous direct-injection as opposed to our stratified charge. The sulfur levels in our fuel are to blame for the US market missing out on this technological improvement.

Our favorite of the engine choices, which will likely cost about $4000 more (as it does currently), promises to be the one in the ML350 Bluetec. Again, this engine boasts the same displacement as its predecessor, but is vastly improved. This 3.0-liter turbodiesel powerplant makes 240 hp (up 30) and 455 lb-ft of torque (up 55) while making a better impression on the EPA with an estimated 20/25 mpg. That’s the same highway figure as the outgoing vehicle, but an in-city increase of 20 mpg. Both models will come standard with 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive.

In time, the ML family will grow to include an ML550 toting a twin-turbocharged, 402-hp gas V8, as well as a third-generation AMG model with a larger turbo V8 producing as much as 550 horses. We couldn’t get full confirmation, but the open space we noticed under the ML’s cargo floor seems to indicate a battery pack will find a home as well. Due to battery supply limitations, the current ML was offered as a hybrid only in a few states this past year as a lease-only deal.

Development of the new ML launched with computer modeling in 2007 and the first real prototypes rolled out in mid-2009, using an evolved version of the last car’s basic platform as a starting point. The Germans don’t like to talk about it, but development started in the late DaimlerChrysler days with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Durango also in mind. The companies’ splitting and differing goals have divided the projects, but the basic bones are still shared. “Why is this important?” they ask. Well, Grand Cherokee fans looking to move up might, as a result of knowing this, be drawn to the ML. And as a bonus, it’ll be fun for us reviewers to see how the engineers in M-B’s Sindelfingen development center have one-upped their old friends in Auburn Hills. When we reviewed the Jeep, we thought it felt even heavier than it is, and we hope the M-B is a bit quicker on its feet.

“Taking a holistic approach” is the buzzword-heavy way for engineers to talk these days about cutting weight and inefficiencies throughout an entire vehicle, and the guys behind the ML are saying it, too. Actually, they’ve developed a computer to do that work for them. Called the “energy-transparent vehicle” development tool, it’s an in-house developed program that uses simulations to detect optimization possibilities right down to components as small as individual wheel bearings. As such, airflow has been optimized around the ML through a number of new seals, spoilers, and design elements, and new materials have been employed as well. The ML’s hood and front fenders are aluminum, and a crossmember behind the dashboard is cast in even lighter, stronger magnesium. Despite a number of added systems and features, the new ML weighs virtually the same as the one it replaces.

It’s a good thing Mercedes engineers took that holistic approach, because there are also a ton of computer-controlled and adjustable components on this latest ML that surely add some weight and complexity. Perhaps the smartest new addition is a set of hydraulic engine mounts for the Bluetec diesel, which function similarly to the ones offered for Porsche’s latest 911 GT3. Based on engine torque, road speed, and revs, a computer switches the mounts between firm and soft damping characteristics. At starts and stops, in city driving, and in some hard acceleration situations, the mounts are soft to quarantine the diesel engine’s inherent vibrations. At higher speeds and on winding roads, the mounts firm up to aid handling. It promises the best of both worlds.

The same can be said of the ML’s Active Curve System, which will be part of a Dynamic Handling Package including 20-inch wheels, Airmatic suspension, and adaptive damping. While the damping and air suspension are self-explanatory (but useful), the Active Curve System employs active anti-roll bars on both axles that automatically adjust to minimize roll through corners while providing optimal comfort on straight roads and highways. We watched the front suspension at work on a test bench and we must say, it’s interesting to watch it contort itself in different directions all at once.

That ability to disconnect the bars pays off in terms of off-road suspension articulation as well, but buyers looking for the most confidence off the beaten path will look to the On&Offroad Package that’s proven itself in Namibia. Unforunately, the package won’t be offered in the US until some time next year. But when it does arrive, it will use the car’s many computer-adjusted systems to dial in six different driving modes: Automatic, Offroad 1, Offroad 2, Winter, Sport, and Trailer. At its most extreme, the package will raise the chassis to 11.2 inches of ground clearance, enough to pass through almost two feet of water. The O&O package also adds a two-stage transfer case, a differential lock, and a skid plate. Those who love technology will also be happy to know that the entire suite of driver assistance systems from the S-class will be offered on the ML as well.

We’ve focused here mostly on the things beneath the skin, but we must say the ML’s new look on the outside is quite handsome as well, channeling a bit of the new CLS550’s front end but with an added bit of toughness. It’s an evolutionary design to be sure, but one that moves in a positive direction.

It’s the changes inside that impress us most, where the design has been cleaned up and a more premium feel has been added to many of the materials, which should help the reputation of the brand’s Alabama-built SUVs. The steering wheel, in particular, is wrapped in softer, more padded leather. The dashboard design is more cohesive, though admittedly, its resemblance to that of the Jeep Grand Cherokee is uncannily similar. No matter, though, because the dials have a more premium feel, the navigation screen is vastly superior, and the array of wood trims offered is more interesting. Mercedes designers also stuck with a stalk-mounted gear selector, leaving more room for padded armrests and cupholders on the center console.

Those wanting the most interesting interiors will be stuck waiting for special-order vehicles to be built. The brown open-pore ash wood trim, which looks like a vintage dining room table wedged into the dash, is on the special order-only list, as are the leather-wrapped dashboard, sport seats, ventilated seats, a few two-tone leather choices, and night vision. When the AMG model arrives, expect it to have a lot of these special order items shifted down to the standard equipment and options lists.

Dieter’s right. Like big, juicy cuts of beef, SUVs won’t be going out of style any time soon, regardless of fuel prices. That’s especially true in the less cost-sensitive luxury market where the ML lives. With its latest round of advancements, this third-generation Mercedes-Benz promises to remain popular for years to come.

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