- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

We Americans have short memories. A year ago, saddled with historically high gas prices, everyone was scrambling for ways to economize on fuel.

Fast forward 12 months: While gas prices are creeping up for the summer season, they’re still at levels that most Americans consider “normal” or at least tolerable. “Miles per gallon” seemingly has fallen off the radar for some Sport Utility Vehicle shoppers.

For 2009, Mercedes-Benz has been focusing on the roll-out of its new BlueTEC turbo diesels. A Mercedes M-Class BlueTEC can achieve as much as 24 mpg highway. The advantage in fuel economy that diesels have over conventional engines would be a stronger selling point if gasoline was still $4.00 per gallon, especially with a traditionally thirsty breed like SUVs.

So while Mercedes is beating the drum for the BlueTEC-powered ML320, shoppers are still beating a path for the gas engine members of the M-Class family, and so will we.

Mercedes offers a trio of gasoline-powered ML models, including the high-performance ML63 AMG, the V-8 ML550, and my test vehicle, the V-6 ML350. This model gets an estimated 15 mpg city and 20 mpg on the highway. The numbers, while not stellar, rank it between the V-8’s estimated 13/17 mpg and the BlueTEC’s 18/24 mpg. More to the point, these mileage ratings are in the range that drivers have come to expect from a midsize SUV and aren’t likely to deter sales - at least as long as gas prices stay more or less in their current range.

The six-cylinder Mercedes is a very good all-around performer. Rated at 268 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it is sufficiently quick (0-60 mph in 7.9 seconds) for all driving situations. The seven-speed automatic transmission distributes the engine’s power evenly and smoothly. Towing capacity is rated the same for all members of the M-Class, at 7,200 pounds.

No one mistakes a sport utility for a sports car, but the ML’s four-wheel independent suspension allows the 4,705-pound ML350 to handle confidently and ride comfortably. The available 4MATIC system is a permanent all-wheel-drive setup, requiring no input from the driver. And while few MLs are expected to go rock crawling, the SUV benefits from features that will enhance any off-road driving.

Downhill Speed Regulation holds you at a comfortably moderate speed while negotiating a slope, allowing the driver to concentrate on steering, not the pedals. Hill Start Assist guards against rollback when launching on an incline.

All members of the M-Class get a styling refresh for 2009. The makeover includes redesigned bumpers fore and aft, new headlights, larger mirrors and five-spoke, 19-inch wheels (20-inch on the AMG model).

Stepping inside, the driver takes in an easy-read “chrono-meter” gauge set framed by a new four-spoke steering wheel. The wheel is fitted with shift paddles and multi-function buttons. Seats have been redesigned for 2009 and are comfortably sized for 6 footers in both rows.

Gear selections are made via a stubby stalk mounted on the right side of the steering column. Its delicate design seems out of place in an outdoorsy vehicle like this. Mounted near the top of the center stack, a newly designed COMAND system houses the controls for the sound and navigation system. Options include a 610-watt digital Harmon Kardon audio system and a rear seat entertainment system, with two 8-inch screens, wireless headphones and an integrated DVD player.

The driver must negotiate a moderate lift over the seats in back, but is rewarded with a big cargo bay. Capacity ranges from a generous 29.4 cubic feet to 72.4 cubic feet, depending on how many of the split folding rear seats you leave in place. The top hinged lift gate swings high out of the way, and an optional power feature opens/closes the hatch door via an in-dash switch, or key fob button.

The 2009 ML350 emerges as a solid choice in a still substantial segment. Luxurious and smooth, the ML is both classy and capable.

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