2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350Posted on March 15th, 2006
By Jim Woodman
I clearly recall my visit to the Mercedes M Class launch back in 1997. There was a buzz about this being the first Mercedes to be built in the United States in over 80 years. I assembled with many other auto writers in Charlottesville, Va. as we anxiously awaited our turns getting behind the wheel.
Most of us were extremely impressed with the new M-Class and, as far as interior creature comforts, that first effort was 100% Mercedes luxury and the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant had produced a German masterpiece right here in America.
Now, nearly nine years later, I got to check out the second generation M-Class, an ML 350, with a 268 horsepower V6 that produces 258 lb.-ft. of Torque. Much had changed in nine years, both with the vehicle and my life.
I was now married with three small children, making the task of getting two car seats and a booster seat in the back seat a challenge worthy of any seasoned parent. Never mind the fact when we were kids our parents just tossed us into the back seat and had no qualms about spreading five or six of us across the same seat. Today, it’s a whole different ball game.
Traveling with Small Children
Traveling with small children today is as logistically challenging as organizing a military operation in a foreign country. God forbid we should forget a car seat, stroller, backpack or portable crib. It’s easy to understand why so many minivans and large SUVs are purchased by families. The pain at the pump is completely outweighed by the hassle of trying to fit all your children’s paraphernalia into a smaller vehicle.
Thus our foray into the second generation M Class was going to be a test of space and comfort as much as performance and safety. We picked up our vehicle in Seattle and were pleasantly surprised at the room in the rear cargo area. It’s definitely an improvement since the first M Class and allowed us to fit all our gear, including stroller and portable crib, for a family of five within that cargo area.
Folding the 60/40 split rear seats down and back up was a snap and I could easily visualize loading and unloading my bicycle easily. If I left the rear seats in place, there was still plenty of room to load a standard road bicycle but it would certainly necessitate removing the two quick release wheels.
While we were able to fit two car seats on the ends, for our five-year-old and 16-month-old, getting the booster seat for our seven-year-old to slide into the middle was a hassle. Since there was just enough room to line up these seats, we had to really wrestle with fitting the seat belt into its middle slot. That said, it did work and while everybody was safe and secure, this would not be the vehicle for three car seats.
The big change for this second-generation M Class is its styling, which, while definitely M-Class Mercedes in shape, is much more in line with the company’s other offerings. It’s longer, wider, and roomier. But the most important difference is that the ML350 has gone from trucklike body-on-frame construction to a carlike unibody structure for improved rigidity with less weight.
Okay, enough on the changes over the last nine years. I was most interested in what the ML 350 had under the hood. Would the six-cylinder be plenty adequate for freeway acceleration and steep hills?
I’m happy to report that the six-cylinder — which boasts 36 more horsepower than the ’05 model — has more than enough pep to keep me happy. The factory claims it will run 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds. And, as my wife will attest, I hate an underpowered vehicle. The seven-speed automatic transmission — that’s right seven speeds — delivers clean crisp shifts, even on many of Seattle’s challenging hills.
And speaking of shifting, for those that haven’t been around Mercedes in a few years, you might spend a few minutes looking for a shift lever. Mercedes has increased interior space by providing a simple, electronic shifting lever off the steering column. The lever is no different than an ordinary windshield wiper or headlights lever, except that it controls the park, reverse and drive transmission through a simple push of a button or up and down flicking of the lever.
For those that like manual shifting, the ML 350 has a set of buttons behind the steering wheel that allow you to shift manually. While this is pretty cool, it’s more gimmicky than necessary as the automatic transmission is geared to handle adverse situations.
The full-time four-wheel-drive system splits torque evenly between the front and rear axles in most conditions. An electronic traction-control system helps control torque distribution to each wheel, and the engine, transmission, and antilock brake systems communicate with it for optimal traction control on or off pavement. I always felt solid, in control and comfortable on Seattle’s wet road conditions.
If off-road driving is your gig, the Downhill Speed Regulation and Hill-Start Assist systems aid low-speed maneuvering on steep grades, particularly in loose conditions. While I didn’t take this vehicle off-road, I’m very impressed with what’s offered and would certainly feel safe in doing so.
Comfort and Convenience
From a comfort and convenience standpoint, our test vehicle was outfitted with 8-way power front bucket seats, DVD Navigation and Sirius Satellite radio to name a few. Being somewhat familiar with Seattle, we became very reliant on the Navigation system. While at times it directed us flawlessly, many times we found it wasn’t generating the quickest or best route.
Navigation menus are controlled by context-sensitive buttons to the sides of the screen, while acceptance of commands and navigation of the map display is done by a small joystick button. It’s a little tricky getting used to but becomes almost second nature after using it a few days.
That said, DVD Navigation is a lifesaver if you truly don’t know where you’re going or need to find the nearest gas station or restaurant. Whether you’re taking the most efficient route or not, you do know you’ll definitely reach your destination.
While my current family needs exclude me from being a real potential M Class buyer, I came away from this drive very impressed with this newest generation M Class and would seriously consider this as our family vehicle as my kids graduate from car seats. No question that three adults would fit comfortably in the rear seat, with their own rear climate control and dual power outlets.
And safety-conscious buyers can also rest assured that the M-Class delivers on all fronts. With a reinforced body cage and dual front air bags, including side window air bags for front and rear passengers, I felt pretty secure that my family was safe in a moderate collision.
While it seems the price has slowly creeped up on the M Class since its 1997 introduction, at $48,825 with a sweet array of options, luxury class buyers will be satisfied with the fact the ML 350 is all Mercedes luxury and performance. It’s also nice to know the M Class is built entirely at the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant in the United States.
Base price: $39,750
Price as tested: $48,825
Horsepower: 268 @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2400 to 5000 rpm
0 to 60: 8.4 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: No
Bicycle friendly: Yes
Fuel economy: 16 city / 20 highway
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