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2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mercedes-Benz

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

The original Mercedes-Benz M-Class signaled a major shift in attitude for the German manufacturer when it debuted in model year 1998. Not only was it designed primarily with U.S. sales in mind, it was built here, at a new facility near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and exported around the world. Since that time, over 600,000 examples of the Mercedes SUV have been sold worldwide, with about half staying in the U.S. And in the time since the M-Class's debut, nearly all luxury automakers have introduced SUVs of their own.

So the time has come for the second-generation M-Class. Like its predecessor, it's built in Alabama, but both the plant and the vehicle have had major makeovers.

If, at a quick glance, the new ML 350 and ML 500 look only like stylistically-updated versions of last year's models, they aren't. The original was a clean-sheet design, and so is the new one. Yes, the exterior and interior styling has been updated in keeping with current Mercedes-Benz trends, but nearly everything underneath has changed as well. The new M-Class models are slightly larger in nearly every dimension, for greater interior space and cargo capacity. The originals were built with body-on-frame construction; the new M-Class vehicles are made with car-like unibody structures for improved ride and handling characteristics and increased safety. Because of the new construction, weight has been reduced by around 400 lbs.

The ML 500's 5.0-liter V8 has minor enhancements that raise its power output by 14 horsepower, to 302. But the real changes have been to the ML 350. Although it's V6 engine has the same 3.5-liter capacity as previously, it's a completely new engine, up 36 horsepower on the old V6 with 268. Both engines feed their power to all four wheels through a single-range transfer case. Both models use the new ``7G-TRONIC'' seven-speed automatic transmission, which benefits to both performance and fuel economy.

I had the opportunity to drive both models of the 2006 M-Class a few months back, and have just finished a week with an ML 350. As expected, the V8 model has more luxury and performance equipment in its standard specification, but the V6 is hardly Spartan. The previous M-Class models were among the best-handling SUVs, especially for spirited driving on pavement, but they are eclipsed by the new ones. With the ML's increase in interior space and the new drivetrains, Mercedes-Benz has made its luxury SUV even better.

APPEARANCE: In its general proportions and shape, the new M-Class is similar to the old. But in detail, it's very different. It's larger, but not by all that much, and has much more complexly-sculpted and bodywork, especially on the sides. What were gentle curves on the old ML are now more angular and better-defined, and the windshield is raked to a degree more associated with sports cars than sport-utility vehicles. The front styling is very car-like, with a low, wide perforated grille that displays the Mercedes-Benz tri-star on twin crossbars, and is flanked by complex, faired projector-beam headlights. What looks like a skid plate under the front is a decorative piece of plastic. It won't stop large rocks, but probably helps airflow. The sides feature large wheel arches and a broad C-pillar that hints at the shape of an S-Class luxury sedan roof line. An upwards-trending character line helps impart a look of motion. At the rear, the signature tail lights have sharp corners, and another faux skid plate and twin rectangular exhausts hint at performance.

COMFORT: The three-inch increase in width and four inches additional wheelbase have been put to good, and noticeable, use inside the new M-Class. Styling is in accord with other new Benzes, with an interesting variety of shapes, colors, materials, and textures. But form does not impair function, and the instruments are easily-read and the controls, for the most part, easy to use. The one exception is the gearshift. A look in the usual location on the console will find two cupholders, with a useful slot for a parking lot or toll ticket between them. The shifter is on the steering column, behind the wheel. But this is not a return of the ``three on the tree'' column shift of ages past. Welcome to the 21st Century - there is no direct mechanical connection between the ``Direct Select'' lever and the transmission, all is electronic. Press the end of the stalk to go into or out of Park, with Reverse up, Neutral central, and Drive down. Buttons on the back side of the steering wheel spokes allow manual shifting. It's a bit strange at first, but quickly becomes second nature.

As expected, seat comfort is top-notch, and the front buckets are power adjustable. Rear seat room is also very good, and the rear seat is split 60/40 with flip-up cushions for a flat load floor when needed. My test vehicle had a number of useful options, including the Trim Package (leather upholstery, cosmetic upgrades, TeleAid telematics, and Homelink), the Entertainment Package (a very good Harmon Kardon Logic7 system with glovebox-mounted 6-CD changer), the Sunroof Package, a DVD-based navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, heated front seats, and power-folding mirrors. A jack in the glovebox allows connection of an iPod or MP3 player.

SAFETY: The new M-Class surrounds its passengers with a strong central safety cell and front and rear crumple zones. Strong four-wheel disc brakes are aided by a four-channel antilock system and Brake Assist. The 4ETS four-wheel drive system includes traction control, and the ESP electronic stability enhancement system is standard equipment. Dual-stage front airbags and front side and side-curtain airbags and a roll-over sensor are all standard equipment.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The original M-Class was one of the best-handling SUVs, and Mercedes-Benz has only improved upon that. With a lighter and more rigid chassis structure, and revised fully-independent double wishbone front, multilink rear suspension, it is among the most car-like of SUVs in its ride and handling abilities on the road. The only time it's easy to tell the ML 350 is not a luxury car is over highway expansion joints and other sharp jolts, when the mass of the large P235/65 HR17 tires and aluminum alloy wheels makes its presence known. And even that is subdued compared to many other SUVs. Attention to aerodynamics not only benefits fuel economy, it also results in low levels of wind noise and good stability in strong winds.

PERFORMANCE: Mercedes-Benz's newest V6 is a departure from its previous engine architecture. Although it is constructed largely of lightweight aluminum alloy, as before, the old single overhead cam, three-valve per cylinder heads have given way to dual overhead cam, four-valve heads. With the twin-cam heads, both the intake and exhaust cams can be continuously phased for optimum power and emissions performance at all engine speeds and loads. The result is more power - now 268 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque from 2400 through 5000 rpm. Although the seven ratios of the 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission cover a wide range, and the top two gears are overdrives for improved fuel economy, the small steps between ratios mean that engine speed varies little when shifting. It feels almost like a CVT continuously-variable transmission. Manual shifting is controlled by buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, but is rarely necessary because of the transmission's adaptive shift logic. Power is strong and smooth, and acceleration, at 8.4 seconds, is on a par with some V8-powered competition.

CONCLUSIONS: In introducing the second generation for 2006, Mercedes-Benz has made some significant improvements to its M-Class SUVs.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

Base Price			$ 39,750
Price As Tested			$ 48,825
Engine Type			aluminum alloy dual overhead cam
				 24-valve V6
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.
Horsepower			268 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			258 @ 2400-5000 rpm
Transmission			7-speed electronically-controlled 
Wheelbase / Length		114.7 in. / 188.5 in.
Curb Weight			n/a lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		n/a
Fuel Capacity			n/a gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P235/65 HR17 Michelin Latitude Tour
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				ABS, Brake Assist, electronic
				 brake force distribution standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent double wishbone /
				  independent multilink
Ground clearance 8.3 in.
Drivetrain			front engine, full-time four-wheel

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		16 / 20 / 16
0 to 60 mph				8.4  sec (mfg)
Towing capacity 			5,000 lbs
Coefficient of Drag (cd)		0.34

Iridium Silver paint			$   690
Power folding mirrors			$    75
DVD navigation system		$ 1,240
Sirius satellite radio			$   500
Trailer hitch				$   490
Heated front seats			$   690
Trim Package				$ 2,200
Entertainment Package		    $ 1,080
Sunroof Package 		$ 1,390
Destination and delivery		$   720