- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Mercedes-Benz M-Class actually created the luxury SUV segment when it debuted the first M-Class in 1997. This second-generation ML-Class will be available in two versions, based on a new unibody architecture: the ML 350, which is powered by the same new 3.5-liter V-6 that drives the new SLK 350; and the ML 500, which draws its motive power from a 5.0-liter V-8. Both engines mate to a seven-speed manually shiftable, automatic transmission 7G-TRONIC (the gear selector is mounted next to the steering wheel), which routes energy to the more effective 4-ETS four-wheel-drive system, riding on AIRMATIC air suspension with three-stage settings (optional). There is also an ML 320 CDI V-6 diesel-engine-powered version that will be sold in Europe. The V-6 generates 272 horsepower 6,000 rpm, and 258 foot-pounds of torque from 2,400 to 5,000 rpm. The V-8-powered ML 500 delivers 306 horsepower at 2,700-4,750 rpm.

Suspension is fully independent.

The 2006 ML-Class takes on a much bolder look with a sporting attitude. Fender arches blend with a strong lower character line and upper, sweeping shoulder to form a dynamic and athletic “flying wedge” form. Fog lamps are integrated into the front fascia. Overhangs are short both fore and aft, enhancing the off-road capability of the ML-Class. The vehicles don’t initially appear to be much larger than their predecessors, but they, in fact, are. The wheelbase has been increased by 3.7 inches, overall length has grown by 5.9 inches and the width is enhanced by 2.8 inches. Despite the growth in size, the new ML-Class weighs in at 400 pounds less than its predecessor, and the aerodynamics have been improved as well — down to 0.34 from the previous 0.40. The ML is bigger than the Lexus RX330 and BMW’s X5.

The latest ML-Class models are differentiated in several other ways. The ML 350 rides on Dunlop Grand Trek 17-inch tires mounted on five-spoke alloy wheels (18-inch optionally available). The ML 500 rolls on 18-inch Michelins mounted on five double-spoke alloy wheels. An appearance package provides optional 19-inch wheels. Up front, the ML 350 sports a black-painted grille, with the ML 500 wearing a silver-painted grille surface. Out back, the V-6 routes its exhaust through dual oval tips, while the V-8’s exhaust exits from dual rectangular tips.

Other interesting features include: MP3 integration; an IPod docking station that charges the unit; variable downhill speed regulation (DSR Hill Descent); Hill Ascent; Crash Active Headrest; and off-road ABS. An Off-Road Pro Package is available with a two-speed Lo range, two differential locks, and a manual shift program.

Both versions of the ML-Class for 2006 are a giant leap ahead for the premium SUV segment pioneer. On-road manners are enhanced, providing a firmer, more stable and controlled ride quality. Off-road capability has improved considerably, as well, without sacrificing the vehicle’s comfort level.

Acceleration is very good in the ML 350, but understandably much better in the ML 500. The seven-speed G-Tronic automatic is a shift-by-wire affair, and its mounting on the column adjacent to the wheel opens up the center console for more practical design applications. Steering provides a balanced, on-center feel, with positive response. Braking maneuvers are equally positive.

Romping through Southern France’s Provence region proved to be child’s play. Both versions of the vehicle created a comfort zone for bumps, and nimble handling characteristics made piloting over very narrow, winding country roads a pleasant experience.

The new ML 350 and ML 500 are both attractive units, inside and out. Controls and switchgear are well positioned for intuitive usage, and overall vehicle ergonomics are a big cut above those of the old M-Class. Bottom line, this latest iteration ML-Class should prove to be a real winner. Should you require something a little different, look for the 224-horsepower 320-CDI diesel and a much more potent ML63 AMG with its 6.3-liter V-8 that pumps out 500 horsepower.

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