First Drive

2012 Mercedes-Benz ML makes Montana debut

New Mercedes-Benz sport ute can go as far as 1,700 km on a tank of diesel

2012 Mercedes ML

Missoula, MN

 The ML isport-utility vehicle is one of the main pillars of the Mercedes-Benz lineup in Canada. There has never been a surplus – they are grabbed off the lot as soon as they appear.

This popularity put tremendous pressure on the team developing the replacement . You could see the relief on the faces of Mercedes' executives during the international launch of the 2012 model at a 37,500-acres ranch here.

The site was chosen as much for the subliminal message as the spectacular scenery. The ML is a major product for Mercedes-Benz in North America and it's built here as well (in Alabama). The company wanted to show journalists from around the globe why it builds this vehicle in America and why it, specifically, and large SUVs in general are so popular – despite rising fuel prices.

The vastness of Montana, the fourth largest U.S. state, means it's a long drive to get anywhere. The fact that there are less than one million people scattered over all this real estate, the vast majority in a few small cities, means great distances between population centers.

Hunting, fishing and raising cattle and horses are the primary means of income and recreation, not necessarily in that order. That means lots of boats, bikes and ATVs to be trailered and with mountains and harsh winters, four-wheel-drive is a almost a necessity.

The reaction of some of the European scribes was interesting to say the least. Some loved the ultra-clean air, vast empty space and sheer wildness of the place. For others it was just too much of nothing – too many trees, too much empty land.

I guess if you live in the confines of a cramped European country or city all this room can be threatening. But surely they now see why Americans love their SUVs and pickups!

Mercedes has worked diligently to keep the third generation ML at or near the top of its competitive set, which is said to include the Acura MDX , BMW X5 and Lexus RX350. One area where it enjoys clear superiority to all of them, and everything else in the class, is fuel economy.

Michael Knoeller, product manager for the 2012 ML, says the diesel version is rated at an astounding 6.8 litres/100 km on the highway. Depending on the size of fuel tank fitted that means it can go as far a s 1,700 km on a tank of diesel. Perfect for Montana!

Also said to be the cleanest diesel on the market, this engine has stunning performance. My driving partner and I drove for more than 500 km of mixed road surfaces, from 2,000 feet above sea level to more than 7,000 feet, without it breathing hard, thanks to 240-turnocharged-horsepower and a whopping 455 lb-ft of torque.

With so much low-end punch getting underway, even when heavily laden, climbing even the tall mountains here presented virtually no challenge. Neither did passing!

We went from the diesel to the gasoline version for the second half of the day and after getting over the decreased performance and higher noise levels under wide open throttle, grew to like the gas burner as well. It has 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, thanks to high-pressure direct injection.

An entirely new engine with a 60-degree spread between cylinder banks, compared to 90 with the older six of the same displacement, it first appeared in the new 2012 SLK and will find its way into other Mercedes vehicles in the coming year. It uses 24% less fuel than the version it replaces.

The new ML is tow-rated for 1590 kg (3,500 lb) with either engine.

An AMG version of the ML will be along within the year, with a 500-plus horsepower, 6.3-litre V-8. A super-saver turbocharged, 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel will be available in Europe and brought here if demand surfaces for its’ 6.0-litre.100 fuel economy. Mercedes says it offers V8 torque and compact car fuel consumption numbers. It also uses an automatic start/stop system to make those numbers

All versions of the ML to be sold here get a new version of the company’s seven-speed automatic transmission. It credits the revised transmission with more than its share of the improved fuel economy. An enhanced 4Matic full-time all-wheel-drive system is also available with on and off-road packages and six driveline configurations. The sand setting was submitted to more than seven million kilometres of testing in various desert locations since June 2009. More than 70% of all Mercedes sold in Canada have 4Matic. The company says that number would be higher if it was available on every model.

Canadian MLs will also get an AMG styling package as standard equipment. It includes a lower body kit and some trim items and pronounced front and rear underguards. The latter helps soften what to my eyes is the weakest point of the redesign a very busy lower rear valance. Also standard on MLs destined for Canada have 19-inch alloy wheels, a seat memory package, heated steering wheel, high resolution display, rear seat airbags and Parktronic with active assist that searches out parallel parking spots and positions the ML within them with only transmission and bake inputs from the driver.

A dynamic handling package will be available with active front and rear anti-roll bars that allow a very smooth ride whiel in a straight line but improved roll control in the corners. It and an enhanced off road driving package will be along in he 2012 calendar year

Mercedes says more than 90% of MLs are ordered with the premium package which includes panoramic sunroof, and 80% with the diesel engine, which at $1,500 is a steal! Sport and Leather packages are also available.

While the exterior has been completely redesigned, the interior is what you’ll see most often and appreciate most. Much less Germanic in nature it has a hefty dose of wood trim and bright finishing touches and a new ambient lighting system. The turn signal stalk has been repositioned and now sits closer to the 9 o’clock position where it is in the rest of the industry.

Pricing has not been announced but we are told not to expect any significant increase from current levels despite the additional equipment.

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