By CL-member-request, a review of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec.
IN A NUTSHELL: A gem of a diesel powerplant, and steadily-improving quality after a long period of sub-par reliability.
Although I had previously reviewed a 2009 Bluetec ML a few years ago, I received a CL-member-request for a M-Class review for the all-new, 2012 model, which is just starting to arrive at local Washington, D.C. dealerships now...somewhat later than one would normally expect to start seeing them, although I don't think they use many, if any, Japanese-sourced parts that were earthquake-delayed.
The Mercedes ML, or M-Class, was first introduced back in 1997, as a 1998 model, during a period when few European-designed SUVs were on the market...although BMW, Volvo, and Audi SUVs were shortly to follow. I remember first-seeing it, in person, live, at the Washington, D.C. Auto Show, with a close friend of mind (a guy I worked with), and his then-fiancee (before they were married). She was quite enamored of it, especially when she found out that it was to be built in her home town, where her family lived.....Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Yes, Mercedes, due primarily to sky-high buisness/labor costs in Germany, decided to build an all-new plant in Alabama for the new ML, and hire American workers. It would obviously bring an economic benefit to the Tuscaloosa area...and other parts of north Alabama. Unfortunately, the plant was damaged in the huge mile-wide tornado that went through Tuscaloosa last
April....that, of course, may have also added to the delay in getting the new 2012 models out.
It was probably a good thing that my friend's fiancee didn't choose a new ML (she later, after they were married, ended up buying a less-expensive Honda Element, which, of course, is also a far more reliable vehicle). At the time, Mercedes-Benz quality was starting to take a nose-dive (partially from increasing competition from Lexus and Infiniti...Mercedes had to lower their production-costs), and I did not recommend an ML purchase, especially with a new and unproven design. And, sure enough, the quality-level of the ML, in its first several production-years, was a disaster, and did a lot to damage the stellar Mercedes reputation. This, however, was not necessarily the blame of the new Alabama workers, as other factors were also involved, and other auto companies have managed to come into the American South, open up new plants, and have no real problems at all. The ML was just deficient in its first-generation design.....a classic tribute to mindless cost-cutting.
Quality gradually improved over the years and into later-generations, although reliability continued to be spotty (but, according to Consumer Reports, has been about average the last couple of years). And, of course, the BMW X5, Volvo XC90, Audi Q7, and some of the less-expensive Land Rovers have cut heavily into what was the original ML-market as well.
For 2012, an all-new ML class debuts in the American market. Two basic versions are offered here.....a gas-powered ML350 and the well-respected ML350 Bluetec Diesel (the Bluetec power-plant is a favorite of mine, though it requires more maintenance than the smaller VW TDI diesels). The gas ML starts at $48,990, and the Bluetec at $50,490, so, of course, these are not inexpensive vehicles.....you're going to have open your wallet to be able to take one home. In my area, though (Washington, D.C. suburbs), even with the recession-resistant local economy and the preponderence of higher-incomes, the leasing-buisness, rather than outright purchases, still helps to keep the luxury-car-buisness going. One can often get more car for the same monthly-payment by leasing, not buying....but leasing, for several reasons, is not for everyone.
Anyhow, back to the 2012 ML models. The gas-version comes with the ubiquitous 3.5L V6 that is also used in some other Mercedes models...it produces 302 HP and 273 ft-lbs. of torque. The Bluetec 3.0L V6 Turbodiesel produces only 240 HP, but a whopping 455 ft-lbs. of torque at a low 1600-2400 RPM.......now you see why I like the responsiveness of this powerplant. Mercedes quotes the same 7.3-second 0-60 time for both, but, though I didn't actually time the acceleration myself, I'm not sure I buy it.....I've seen a lot of auto specs over the years that were questionable. Both the gas and Bluetec versions come standard with a 7-speed Sport-Shift automatic transmission and the Mercedes 4MATIC AWD system.......even in places without a lot of snow or ice, it would probably be senseless to offer an upmarket SUV like this without all-wheel traction.
New 2012 ML Bluetec models, in the D.C. area, right now (late October 2011) are not in as plentiful supply as their gas-engined brothers. I had to look around some to find a suitable unsold one for the review. One local Mercedes shop had two of them, and it turned out that one was way back in the corner of the showrooom where I could only look it over without a test-drive, and the other was sold just as I arrived at the place. So, for the static-review, I looked over the silver one in the showroom, and waited for another suitable one, later on, for the test-drive. The one I actually test-drove (at another local Mercedes dealership) was black and had more options on it (running boards, power-sunroofs, etc...), listing for $57,990.
Some Mercedes reps are quite customer-friendly, and, in general, Mercedes dealerships have lost some of the arrogance and puffy, aristocratic attitude that they once had.....due, of course, to much more intense-competition now from other luxury-brands. Even years ago, you could occasionally find friendly M-B reps (I can remember one, maybe 10-15 years ago, that greeted me like a king, tossed me the keys to a new E-class, and didn't even Xerox my Drivers' License), but, in general, that was the exception rather then the rule. Today, the ratio of friendly M-B reps to the traditional snooty ones is much greater.....Mercedes has had to, out of sheer market-necessity, concentrate much more on customer-satisfaction than in the past. I was extremely pleased with the M-B sales-rep I dealt with today....he spent probably a half-an-hour looking for the vehicle's key-fob when someone misplaced it (the vehicle had just come off the transporter last evening), and gave me a soda to take on the road with me after the test-drive. Even if I don't buy a new vehicle from him myself, I'd have no problem at all referring any potential M-B customer to him.
So...on to the review.
MODEL REVIEWED: 2012 Mercedes ML350 BlueTec
BASE PRICE: $50,490
Iridium Silver Metallic Paint: $720
Wood/Leather Steering Wheel: $590 (expensive, but it may be worth the almost $600...more on that below)
Keyless-Go System: $650
S01 Package (Incluses NAV): $3200
Rear-Seat Entertainment System: $240
DESTINATION/FREIGHT: $875 (about average for a vehicle in this class)
LIST PRICE AS REVIEWED: $56,765
DRIVETRAIN: 4MATIC AWD, Longitudionally-mounted 3.0L BlueTec TurboDiesel V6, 240 HP @ 3600 RPM, Torque 455 Ft-lbs. @ 1600-2400 RPM, 7-speed automatic Sport-Shift transmission
EPA MILEAGE RATING: 20 City / 27 Highway (not super-high MPG for a diesel, but not bad considering the power-level)
EXTERIOR COLOR: Iridium Silver Metallic
INTERIOR: Black MB-Tex (in other words, vinyl), with Eucalyptus-Wood trim.
Improving build-quality in the last few years.
Strong diesel torque at low speeds.
smooth, quiet diesel operation.
Instant-engine-start, with no glow-plug-wait like years ago.
No more diesel-clatter, soot, or difficult cold-weather starting like years ago.
Diesel/Alternative-fuel tax-credits available in some areas.
Smooth, quiet, flexible 7-speed automatic transmission.
Typical Mercedes competent ride/handling combination and chassis-engineering.
Many safety features typical of M-B products.
Relatively solid-feeling doors/hatch/sheet-metal.
Outside mirror-mounted turn-signal indicators.
Exterior trim well-done and well-attached.
Good interior hardware.
Exquisitely-finished wood/leather steering-wheel.
Well-done, classy brushed-metal interior trim.
Excellent overall interior fit/finish.
Clear, well-done primary-gauges.
Fairly-simple climate-controls (not typical of M-B products).
Solid-operating steering-column stalks/paddles.
Good front and rear headroom for tall persons.
Good fromt and rear legroom/footroom.
Relatively easy entry/exit in and out the doors.
Well-finished cargo-area, even for the price.
First-Aid kit included in the trunk.
Handsome (IMO) alloy-wheels.
Terrible underhood layout for easy-service.
Where is the battery?....I couldn't find it.
No oil-dipstick...oil-level depends on sensors.
BlueTec Diesel requires periodic Urea-solution fillups.
Urea-solution and Diesel-fuel filler caps right next to each other, under gas-filler-door.
Awful (IMO) exterior paint-color selection.
OK paint-job quality, but not up to the Lexus/Audi-class.
Metallic-paint costs extra ($720)....and too much extra at that.
Too much Orange-peel on the black paint-jobs for a vehicle of tis price.
Oddly-shaped side-mirrors too narrow and tall, IMO.
No body-side mouldings to ward-off parking-lot dings.
MB-Tex upholstery out of place in a 50-60K vehicle of this class.
Cheap-feeling seat-padding on front seats.....much better on the rear split-bench.
Traditionally-complex Mercedes NAV/center-dash screen/controls (but Voice-Command Actuation helps somewhat)
Too many stalks on the steering column....can be confusing.
El Cheapo hard-plastic sun visors an insult to a vehicle of this class.
Otherwise-handsome wood-tone interior trim has too much clear-finish on it.
Multi-steps needed for rear-seat-folding to extend cargo area.
Traditionally expensive parts/service/repairs (when not done free or under warranty).
4/50 warranty not as impressive as on Japanese-brand luxury-vehicles.
Bluetec diesel models a little difficult to find in stock right now.
(Some) M-B dealerships can still be a little snooty or aristocratic.
The exterior design of the ML has changed somewhat through the years, but can better be described as evolutionary instead of revolutionary. The overall body shape, as with most newer vehicles, has gotten a little sleeker and more wind-cheating, but, still, it is not difficult to recognize this new 3rd-generation model as a descendant of the 1997 original. The front end still features a multi-horizontal-bar grille, big chrome Mercedes Tri-Star logo, and somewhat conservatively-shaped headlights. The roofline (which includes a split front/rear-sunroof option), dips down slightly in the back more than the original, but, fortunately, not enough to significant affect rear headroom or cargo-room (more on that later). The rear cargo-hatch, as befits an SUV of this price, is power-operated. The doors and sheet-metal are not quite as solid-feeling as the original, but are still reasonably hefty, and not as thin-feeling as on a lot of other new vehicles. And, of course, underneath that sheet-metal is the renowed Mercedes safety, crashworthiness, and unibody engineering. Though other manufacturers have caught up to an extent, Mercedes and Volvo, in general, still lead the auto industry in crashworthiness and safety-engineering.
Entry/exit, in and out the doors, for someone my height (6' 2") was quite easy without running boards, but chrome-trimmed ones are available as an option for shorter people who might find them useful. The twin outside mirrors were tall enough for optimum vision, but, IMO, a little too narrow and not wide enough. They did, however, in the Mercedes tradition, have integrated turn-signal indicators on them. All of the outside trim was of high-quality (by today's chrome-plastic-standards) and applied well. I liked the appearance of the 5-spoke silver-colored alloy wheels, with a slit down each spoke for additional brake-cooling. As expected in a mid-size SUV, there is plenty of ground clearance for snow, mud, and road-obstacles....but, of course, this is a car-based SUV, not a truck-based one, and, unlike its considerably more-expensive G-Wagon (Gelandewagen) brother, is not designed for serious off-roading.
Ten exterior colors are offered (which you would expect on a vehicle of this class), but the color-choices, IMO, border on the absurd. There are two blacks, two whites (one of them at least a nice Pearl-White), a gray, a silver, and the rest of the color-shades look like something an undertaker would wear....even with the blue and brown. I'd love to meet some the designers in the auto-industry who sit down and actually pick out the factory-production colors on a lot of today's vehicles. I would speak civilly to them, of course, and not be rude, but I'd love to know what kind of (supposed) market-research goes into actually picking out all these funeral-home shades. To me, it just doesn't make sense, whether you are talking an entry-level econobox or a six-figure, premium-vehicle. And, while I'm at it, it would also be nice to meet the designers who usually pick out little-else but shades of black, gray, and beige/tan for the interior-theme colors. It would also be nice if automakers (mostly, but not totally, on European-brands) stopped charging several hundered dollars extra for metallic paints. Yes, sometimes metallic and Pearl-paints do cost more to prepare and apply, but not to the tune of that much money on each vehicle, even with today's special EPA-required automotive painting-techniques.
OK...I'm done venting on the color-choices now. As for the quality and smoothness of the paint-job itself, it was OK, but noticeably a step below that of your typical Lexus or Audi paint. The black one I test-drove had significant orange-peel in the paint. The white and silver ones I looked at were noticibly smoother and evenly-done.
Paint-color-choices aside, though, IMO, quite a good job on the exterior. I generally liked the looks of the first-generation ML, and I like the looks of this one as well.
Open the reasonably-solid hood, and, of course, nice gas struts hold it up (I can't imagine a Mercedes of this caliber with a manual prop-rod), and a nice insulation-pad lines the underside of the hood. Like most upmarket/luxury vehicles today, though, the underhood component-accessibility is lousy. The longitudionally-mounted 3.0L Bluetec diesel V6, while a marvel of diesel-engineering, fits in very tightly, even though it is a half-liter smaller than its 3.5L gas-V6 stablemate. Perhaps (?) the additional-strengthening of the diesel-block needed for the higher-compression needed meant more metal in the block itself, despite the smaller-displacement. That could (?) account for the diesel fitting in tightly.
The whole top of the engine, again like with most upmarket-vehicles, is hidden by a very large plastic cover that blocks just about everything except the oil filler-cap. Don't even bother to look for the oil dipstick.....Mercedes, Like some other upmarket European-makes, tossed out conventional (and, IMO, more-reliable) dipsticks for electronic oil-sensors. And you can look for the battery, but you may or may not find it (I myself couldn't, either underhood or under the trunk-floor, where they sometimes are. I DID find, though, a small red-plastic sliding-cover marked (+) that, when slid back, exposed the positive battery-terminal. The negative one (-)?.........Well, good luck.
Inside the cabin, the M-B designers have generally done a nice job, especially compared to previous versions, though there are, IMO, still several significant goofs in the design....I'll get those out of the way now, so we can go on to better things.
First, the seats could use some improvements. The M-B upholstery (also used on some other Mercedes designs), IMO, is way out of place in a vehicle of this price and class.....it is essentially reformulated vinyl, which you generally don't even find in entry-level sub-compacts anymore (virtually everything today starts with cloth). I understand the advantages of a dark-colored vinyl for easy-cleaning-up after children and pets, but even here, it doesn't help much, because the perforated holes in the vinyl allow water and cleaning-solution to seep through to the seat-padding below. The padding itself is on the soft side for comfort, but, consequently, feels rather flimsy and lacking in durability....I'd like to see what the front seats look like after 5-6 years and 50-60k miles of big rumps like me getting and and out of them. The rear split-bench seat feels a little more solid and durable.
Second, in the recent-Mercedes tradition, the steering-column has too many stalks hung on it. On the left-side of the column are THREE stalks all vying for your attention.....cruise-control, washer/wiper-function, and the stub-stalk for the power tilt/telescope steering wheel....the fourth stalk, on the right, along with the steering-wheel-paddles, controls the transmission-gears. As in other recent Mercedes models I've sampled, it is easy (at least until you get used to them) to accidentally hit the cruise-control stalk when you are trying to signal for a left or right-turn....a design like this, IMO, is exceedingly strange in a vehicle where driving-safety is so heavily-emphasized, but that's the way Mercedes does it. Fortunately, the designers really worked on the stalks themselves to give them a solid, quality-feel in their operation...they feel much better in your fingers than the cheapish-ones in the older versions. The twin sun-visors are cheap, brittle-hard-plastic that feel like something out of a $12,000 econobox rather than a 50-60K luxury-SUV. The center-dash is still somewhat over-cluttered with similiar-looking buttons, but the twin climate-control ***** are nicely-done and easy-to-operate....an improvement over the past. Those are my major complaints...the rest are minor, such as the Eucalyptus wood-trim having too much clear-coating on it that males it look less like real wood (which, of course, it is, not fake-wood).
But there is a LOT to like inside, too....the designers, as I said a moment ago, have generally done a nice job. The NAV screen, though still too complex for my tastes, is less-complex than before, especially with the help of the Voice-Command function. The power-sunroof is split effectively into front/rear sections. There is plenty of headroom under the sunroof housings, in both the front and ear seats, for six-foot-plus guys like me, in spite of the slight droop-down in the rear-roofline. There is also plenty of legroom for guys my size, front and rear. The general level of fit/finish inside is far above that of past MLs....the first-generation-model, IMO, looked somewhat cheap inside for a Mercedes, and the second-generation was somewhat of an improvement, but still not as good as this one. And, if your budget won't object (this, of course, is an expensive vehicle to start with), go ahead and spend the extra $650 for the optional wood-and-leather steering-wheel.....it may be worth it. It is exquisitely-finished, has a silky-feel that is almost seductive, and, IMO, is as nice or nicer than the best steering-wheels on top-line Jaguar and Lexus products. However, it is not available with the heater-option for the wheel. The brushed-aluminum trim throughout the interior also looks great, though it is a little more shiny than average. It's hard to tell if it's very well-done plastic or real aluminum.
The interior hardware is mostly well-done, though the glove-box-latch could close a little more solidly. Two wood-trims are available...Eucalyptus and Burl-Walnut. Three interior colors are offered....almond beige, grey, and black. So....you want REAL leather inside, as a vehicle in this class probably should have? Then cough up some more $$$$$....it is an option.
So, yes, some complaints, but generally a well-done interior. I was generally more pleased with it than in past ML versions.
Generally quite well-done. An electric-motor raises and lowers the hatch-lid for you (watch your head as it moves). The aforementioned slight-dip in the rear-roofline doesn't seem to hurt cargo-space much, if any. The cargo-area is well-trimmed (as you would expect for this price-class), in a slightly thin but still soft and plush-feeling carpet on both the walls and floor. Both split-rear seats fold-down for added cargo space, but require a multi-step motion to do so....the cushions and seat-backs all have to fold separately. In the Mercedes tradition (safety, of course), a First-Aid Kit, like with some other luxury-makes, is included in a pocket on the right trunk-wall. A nice pull-shade/cover protects valuables in the trunk from prying-eyes. Under the trunk-floor is a temporary spare-tire instead of a real one. Most off-road-capable SUVs and trucks still include real spares, but the ML, as I stated earlier, is not intended for hard-core off-roading. Still, for a 50-60K price tag, I don't think a real spare is too much to ask. I hunted for the battery down with the temporary-spare unde the floor, as it is on some vehicle (remember,I couldn't find it under the hood), but no luck. Anyhow, I wasn't going to waste all day looking for it (there was too much else to do). If it was down there somewhere and I just didn't see it, that's the breaks.
ON THE ROAD:
Start up the 3.0L Bluetec Turbo-Diesel with either a engine START/STOP button (on the KEYLESS-GO option) or by inserting a key-fob into a box-shaped hole in the dash. The engine starts almost instantly. With the Bluetec, gone are the old days of waiting for the diesel glow-plugs to warm up (remember, a diesel engine is compression-ignition with no spark-plugs), diesel-clattering, visible black-soot out the exhaust, and hard-starting in cold-weather. It is virtually indistinguishale from the ML's gas-engine.
Until you step on the gas, at least. The Bluetec's stump-pulling 455 ft-lbs. of torque (almost 200 ft-lbs. more than the larger gas-engine) presses you firmly back into your seat, despite the ML's weight and heft. The maximum torque comes on at only 1600 RPM, so it hits right above idle. The engine remains relatively smooth and quiet, especially by diesel-standards, so you don't hear much if any clatter. Nor do you see the old-style black soot coming out the tailpipe, even under hard acceleration. 27 MPG, on the highway, may not be the stuff of econoboxes, but, for a vehicle of this size and power, IMO, it is excellent. This is obviously one of my favorite engines, and one I have a lot of respect for. And the downsides? It costs a little more than the gas V6 (tax-credits might help, though), requires a periodic urea-solution refill every 10,000 miles or so, and, of course, requires low-sulfur diesel-fuel, which, in many places, costs as much or more than 93-octane premium gas. Still, I'd take this powerplant in a heart-beat over the standard
The 7-speed Sport-shift automatic transmission, IMO, may be a little overkill in the gears-department...I personally don't in most cases, see a need for more than 5 or 6, unless you are doing some really high speeds. I've already mentioned the little shift-stub for it sticking out of the right-side of the steering-column. It feels more-precise and solid in its operation than past versions (you can tell the designers worked on the linkage). For manual-shifting, paddles are provided on the steering-wheel, but they are a little on the small side and not easily-hit by feel-alone. The transmission is generally smooth and quiet, and, of course, quite flexible with its 7 gears.
The chassis has the typical Mercedes-engineering to it, with the usual good-to-excellent combination of ride-and-handling, though not quite to BMW standards. Still, you can tell that some effort was put into the chassis. Steering response, for a relatively high-center-of-gravity vehicle, is pretty good, and though there is some body-lean, it is manageable. Mercedes was one of the companies that pioneered electronic vehicle stability-control back in the mid-1990s, and, of course, the new ML has the latest version of it. Ride comfort is quite good for this type of vehicle, and I didn't notice any of the fore/aft porposing common on some small and mid-size SUVs. Road and wind-noise, from the well-insulated door/window seals, wheel-wells, and hefty sheet-metal, is relatively low, though you won't necessarily confuse it with a Lexus LS460. Brakes, also with the latest Mercedes electronic safety-features, are smooth and effective, and the pedal-location, though not perfect, is well-enough-placed so that my big size-15 circus-grade-shoes don't hang-up too much on the underside of it when going from gas to brake.
Mercedes, IMO, has generally done a nice job on the new ML, especially with the new interior-trim, less-complex NAV system, good ride/handling combination, and, of course, the outstanding Bluetec turbo-diesel. It is not inexpensive, but, of course, neither are most of its direct-competitors...including the BMW X3/X5, Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKT, Audi Q5/7, Volvo XC-90,Lexus RX350, and mid-range Land-Rovers. It generally competes favorably with
these competitors, and trumps some of them in safety-features.
But some flies remain in the ointment. The underhood-layout, IMO, is absurd. So are the paint-color choices. So are the way the stalks are mounted on the steering-column. So is the cheap MB-Tex imitation-leather (vinyl) upholstery in a vehicle of this class. So are the K-Mart sun-visors. And the typically-European 4/50 Bumper-to-Bumper warranty (including the drivetrain) is not very impressive when you look at the 4/50 and 6/70 (Powertrain) coverage that the Japanese luxury-manufacturers give you....this is especially important with the electrical-problems that upmarket European-vehicles often tend to have. And, when the warranty or free-service period expires, Mercedes products can cost you big $$$$$ for service and repairs.
Still, there are some solid reasons for purchasing a new ML. You get a lot of safety-features (the safety of their kids, of course, is paramount with a lot of parents today), a superb diesel powerplant, a nice interior with plenty of head/legroom, and the panache of the Mercedes-namplate (even if some of that prestige is outdated). The dealerships, in general, are becoming more customer-friendly, though a few of the old snoots still remain. And, of course, the new ML offers all-weather security in luxury-conditions (if you don't mind sitting on vinyl).
As always, of course......Happy Car Shopping.