2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
This 2006 review is representative of model years 2006 to 2008.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
The redesigned second-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class sport-utility vehicle is a major improvement over the first-generation model. It's sleeker, larger and—importantly—far more carlike, as are most new SUVs.
This early 2006 M-Class has some of the boxy 1998-2005 model's design language, but is much more streamlined with such things as a swept-back windshield, and alluring blend of strongly contoured surfaces and taut lines. The roomier interior also gets a much-needed update. Like the first-generation M-Class, the 2006 model is built at Mercedes' Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant.
Mercedes introduced the new M-Class far from Alabama at a media preview drive in Provence, France, starting in Nice and involving challenging mountain driving.
Exact prices weren't announced at the preview, but Mercedes said they'll range from approximately $40,000 to the high-$40,000 range when the two M-Class versions go on sale in April. The 2005 M-Class has list prices of $37,950 and $46,400.
Two Trim Levels
A hot rod AMG version of the M-Class may arrive next year with racy cosmetic touches and a rumored 500-horsepower V8. Also, an advanced turbocharged diesel engine is scheduled to be offered in 2007 for sale in most areas of the country except California and a few northeastern states.
Many may have forgotten that most Mercedes cars sold in America a few decades ago had diesel engines, which are popular in Europe because of advanced new diesel designs and sky-high gasoline prices.
The ML 350 provides decent acceleration and is expected to account for 75 percent of sales, with the V8 picking up the rest. However, the M-Class is heavy at approximately 4,800 pounds, so the V8 provides the best acceleration.
A "Direct Select" feature lets the transmission be electronically touch-operated by nudging a steering column stalk that doesn't take up space like a floor-mounted shifter. But the stalk can be tricky to use if a driver is in a hurry. For instance, it requires more than lazy concentration to select a gear, and the "park" gear position is gotten by pushing in the stalk.
Mercedes called the first M-Class an "All Activity Vehicle." It was a new type of vehicle for Mercedes and one of the first mid-size luxury SUVs. It had Mercedes' first V6 engine and was the first Mercedes built in an American plant.
Being the first Mercedes luxury SUV, the 1998 M-Class had several glitches. For example, folding the 3-piece rear seatbacks forward for more cargo room required working awkward-to-use cheap plastic levers and releases—and then the seatbacks didn't fold flat. Many owners must have shook their heads and said, "This is a Mercedes?" However, the SUV was improved as the years passed.
The 2006 M-Class will mainly compete with BMW's X5 SUV, but also faces upscale rivals from automakers including Acura, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus and Volvo.
"The 2005 M-Class really isn't unusually old for a Mercedes because the life cycle of most of our models is about 7.5 years," said Mercedes spokesman Rob Moran.
However, Mercedes says it may have to shorten vehicle life cycles because of greater competition.
More Modern Feel
Test drives on twisting mountain roads showed the M-Class to have quick steering with Mercedes' slightly heavy, but reassuring, feel. The brake pedal initially felt a little touchy, but I soon got used to it and appreciated the strong brakes. Road manners were very sporty for a heavy SUV.
The ride was comfortable, and the new Mercedes looked right at home while cruising through glamorous French cities such as Nice and Cannes.
Off-Road Abilities Downplayed
"Less than one percent of SUV owners use their vehicles for tough, off-road motoring," Mueller said. "That's why an optional off-road suspension package will not be offered for the M-Class in America until 2007."
Gauges can be quickly read and dashboard controls are easy to use—as are power seat controls on the sides of the supportive front seats.
Traction control and anti-skid systems are standard, as are anti-lock brakes with an assist feature for surer panic stops.
Optional features include "Keyless-Go," which allows doors to be opened and the M-Class to be started without a key; a driver only needs to keep the vehicle's key fob in a pocket or purse and just pushes a button to start and to stop the engine.
The optional power tailgate opens easily to reveal a large cargo area, although it has a rather high opening. The entire rear seats flip forward to enlarge the cargo area—and this time Mercedes got it right because that's a no-sweat procedure.
Twin hydraulic struts let the hood raise smoothly, which shows good attention to detail.
Mercedes has had quality issues in the past few years, but feels confident that the new design of the solid-feeling M-Class should be free of problems.