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Mercedes-Benz scores with luxury SUV model

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Mercedes-Benz scores with luxury SUV model

Beneath the ML's rich and full-bodied styling is still a technological powerhouse of off-road and on-road finesse.

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POSTED July 25, 2012 6:28 p.m.

Mercedes-Benz has finally merged the concepts of SUV and luxury sedan with its redesigned M-Class.

This five-passenger sport-utility vehicle now has a full measure of Mercedes-class refinement, but beneath the rich and full-bodied styling it is still a technological powerhouse of off-road and on-road finesse.

That's not entirely unlike the first ML in 1998, but this third-generation redesign is a complete makeover with much attention to aerodynamics and fuel economy. It is sold in V-6, V-8 and diesel models with starting prices that range from $49,865 to $95,865 for the top-line ML63 with a 518-hp, twin-turbocharged, 5.5-liter V-8. The ML350 Bluetec diesel, today's test car, starts at $51,365 (unchanged from 2011) and was $75,665 with options.

The ML evolution has been swift and thorough. With a tow rating of 7,200 pounds on the gas and diesel models, the ML has the brawn of a truck with the grace and comfort of Mercedes' E-Class sedan.

Compared to the 2011 model, the ML is 3/4-inch lower, almost an inch longer and a 1/2-inch wider. It has the same wheelbase, but the width between the wheels is more than a 1/2-inch wider in front and an inch wider rear. The wider stance equates to stability in cornering. Inside, there is 1.34 inches more front elbow room and almost an inch in back.

Off-road credentials include skid plates, two AWD trail settings (including "challenging" terrain), a two-stage transfer case with reduction gear and low-range lock. Downhill Speed Regulation allows off-road travel at speeds of 1 to 25 mph, uphill or down. The optional Airmatic suspension allows a maximum ground clearance of 11.2 inches and a fording depth of 23.6 inches.

Power is up significantly and so is fuel economy. The direct-injection, turbocharged and intercooled 3.0-liter V-6 has a peak of 240 hp at 3,600 rpm, but 455 foot-pounds of torque from 1,600 to 2,400 rpm. That puts the power at low rpms to launch from the traffic light or get that trailer moving.

The diesel ML is not particularly sporty to drive, but it moves with authority, hefting its 5,040 pounds with surprising subtlety. Sport mode can be jiggly on concrete Interstate roads, but engaging Comfort mode smoothes out the ride. The test truck came with the Dynamic Handling Package, $5,150, which includes the Airmatic suspension and adaptive damping (special shock absorbers), and a curve control system helps manage and control weigh transfer in corners or emergency maneuvers.

Fuel economy of 20 mpg city, 27 highway is up 2 mpg in each range over 2011. And the diesel bests the gasoline V-6 by 3 mpg city and 5 mpg highway but has the same 0-60 mph time of 7.3 seconds and weighs 287 pounds more. Its driving range of more than 600 miles means fewer fill-ups for long-distance commuters in the weekly 500-mile club.

Competitors include the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Lexus RX 350 and Lincoln MKX, but the ML is the more formal of the lot.

The initial reaction to a test drive will come from the steering wheel. The glossy wood and tender leather on the surfaces are just as smooth as the steering force, an electro-mechanical setup. The wheel can be turned with two-finger ease, yet there is driver feedback, not numbness. And the turning circle is not unwieldy at 38.7 feet.

Somewhere way up front, the diesel engine can be heard, barely. The soundproofing — sound isolation — is penetrating. The cabin is well-filtered from road harshness, tire noise or even wind. Interior conveniences include well-placed storage and stash places, including a handy place to drop a phone on the center console. But the Bluetooth system was too convoluted to hook up my DroidX. Visors with lighted mirrors have a secondary flap when the main visor is swung to the side.

The back seat is raised for comfortable sightlines with a reclining seatback. There is good footroom under the front seats and generous legroom at 38.5 inches. A low transmission hump helps center-position footroom. The fold-down armrest has cup holders, and there are grab handles at every window seat. But folding the seatback takes muscle to push into position.

Despite sleek overall styling, the cabin has square function dimensions. The cargo area has an opening of 45 inches, a length of 65 inches with the back seat folded (flat) and a height of 35 inches, which rises an inch or two at the back-seat headroom. That's good capacity for a range of sports gear.

It just seems wrong to call the ML a utility vehicle. If you need power for towing, capability for off-road and appreciate comfort, the ML is just multitasking and luxurious.

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