With their ghosts, legends and style of play, they were the most beloved, feared, envied and copied franchise in all of sports.
Pinstripes. The Babe. Reggie. These were the guys who got candy bars named in their honor. Kids grew up knowing the names and nicknames of the players and trading every marble and baseball card they owned just to get a mint condition ’76 Reggie Jackson.
Then the eighties hit, and you couldn’t sell a Yankees card for a cracked marble and a piece of string. They became the laughingstock of the league, an infamous group of bumblers and boozers who barely filled their famed stadium with fans. Every year, it seemed, they crawled along until the end of the season, slow and old and not nearly exciting. Even their famed pinstripes, once the source of considerable intimidation, were mocked as an uninspired uniform style, past it and just plain yesterday.
They were also-rans. And we Americans so hate also-rans. Losers are lovable, winners sexy, up-and-comers exciting, but also-rans – also-rans are nothing. Zero. Used-ta-bees. In our culture, last place and laughter is too good for those who had it and lost it – better to stick ‘em in the closet, in a shoebox up high, and try hard to forget that you were ever infatuated with such a lousy group of louts.
There are people who feel that way when they think of their Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Formerly known as the glorious leader of the luxury suv craze, over seven years the M-Class has watched as its changes and upgrades failed to keep pace with new vehicles being introduced all around – vehicles that chipped away at its once formidable appeal, breaking it down to the point where only those loyal to the three-pointed star would buy the car. Even Mercedes-Benz, like the Yankees a venerable and storied brand, lacks enough loyal fans to keep trotting out a product that increasingly fails to compete.
The Yankees turned it around in the nineties and once again became the great pinstriped intimidators. And Mercedes-Benz may not be far behind with the M-Class, as a first drive of the all-new 2006 Mercedes ML 350 and 500 revealed a comfortable, well-equipped SUV with considerable prowess on the road. Yet with styling that looks stale when parked side-by-side to the upcoming R-Class, and the removal of its third row of seats, prospective buyers may find that impressive comfort, features and driving experience aren’t enough in exchange for the style and substance of a third row and a new, more modern look. And while the improved 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is certainly no longer an also-ran, it may be some time before it recaptures the glory of its past dominance.
Choosing is the hardest thing to do. Really, it is – and it is an affliction unique to the richer classes. Poor people don’t get to choose – just look around the next time you fly coach. As for cars, the Great Unwashed get air conditioning, cloth interiors and whatever safety equipment the government forces automakers to put into their little tin boxes.
Or they can buy Korean, and get the airbags for free. It’s always better to have the cash – then you can buy everything – but there’s a lot of everything from which to choose. Mercedes-Benz understands this, and has built two simple M-Class models to soothe the agony of choice: the ML 350, at a sticker price of $39,750, and the ML 500, for almost 10 grand more at $48,500. Either are solid choices with long standard feature lists. From a driving enjoyment perspective, it’s hard to argue with the ML 500 and its 5.0-liter V8 engine. Plus you get chrome exhaust pipes – those have got to be worth a few thou on their own.
Powered by a new 3.5-liter V6 that makes 268 horsepower, the ML 350 is a nice ride – but it pales in comparison to the 5.0-liter V8 engine, which rates 306 horsepower. The real difference, however – the one you pay for – is an astonishing 339 lb.-ft of torque at 2,700 rpm, about 80 lb.-ft more than the V6 at 2,400 rpm. Thanks mainly to that torque boost, the ML 500 feels as though it fits, hand in glove and driver’s expectations to car. And while the ML 350 has a fine V6 powertrain, there is a slight feeling of compromise in the way it drives. Both vehicles have the new Mercedes-Benz seven-speed automatic transmission. Standard features on the ML 350 include a new full-time four-wheel-drive system featuring downhill speed regulation; start-off assist; off-road four-wheel-disc antilock brakes; a new four-wheel electronic traction system (4-ETS+); Hill Start Control; and an Electronic Stability Program (ESP). Safety equipment includes side and curtain airbags for all rows; seatbelt tensioners and force limiters; and a tire pressure warning system.
Inside, one-touch up and down power windows, a tilt/telescoping power steering wheel, PETA-mandated standard cloth upholstery in lieu of leather, eight-way power front seats with power driver lumbar, and a rear 60/40 split folding bench seat with fold-down center armrest and adjustable headrests come standard. There's also an eight-speaker sound system with speed sensitive volume and a CD player, automatic dual-zone climate control, an interior pollen and dust air filter, rear heating and air conditioning ducts, and aluminum interior trim. Exterior standard features include 17-inch, all-season performance tires mounted to alloy wheels, and an intermittent rear wiper/washer. Mechanical highlights include power rack and pinion steering, independent double wishbone front suspension, independent multi-link rear suspension, and a rear stabilizer bar. Additional features included in the sticker price are a latching power liftgate and a full-size spare tire under the cargo floor – a needed change from the previous version, which kept the spare under the car where it was hard to reach and got dirty.
Moving up to the ML 500 brings you the larger V8 engine, and more standard features. A full spate of standard telematics includes automatic collision notification, concierge services, emergency response, roadside assistance, security system notification, stolen vehicle tracking, remote unlocking, and a Tele Aid vehicle location system. The ML 500 also comes standard with burl walnut genuine wood trim, a non-PETA inspired leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a chrome grille.
Select options include a fully automatic power liftgate ($520), a navigation system ($1,240), Sirius satellite radio ($500), Thermatronic triple-zone climate control ($750), and front heated seats ($690). A slew of option packages include the Trim Package ($2,200), AMG Sport Package ($4,500), Appearance Package ($2,550), Appearance with Chrome Wheels Package ($3,350), Premium Package ($6,150), Comfort Package ($1,450), Lighting Package ($890), Entertainment Package ($1,080), and a rear cargo management system.
The most significant package, however, is the Air Suspension Package ($1,775). The Air Suspension Package, dubbed AirTronic, offers different suspension settings: sport, normal and comfort. The difference between the settings is noticeable; sport mode takes a soft and boaty ride and turns it into a more road-tuned driving experience.
If you want a performance freak on the road with all the comforts of home, get the chrome grille, V8 engine and go torque-swimming with the ML 500 for around $50,000. If you’re not so interested in burning off your eyebrows with sudden bursts of speed, opt for the $40,000 ML 350. Either way, you will be happy with the standard equipment. The most critical options are the Air Suspension Package, power liftgate, and rear cargo management system. Also consider the Off-Road Pro Package with its upgraded four-wheel-drive transfer case, but only if you think you may actually get your M-Class dirty.
You can live without the third row of seats. Really, you can – and you’ll be glad of it, because the best thing to happen to the inside of the 2006 M-Class is the removal of the third row. Wait – that sounds a bit odd, given our desire for more and more and more, and making the new M-Class into a five-seat vehicle is surely risky business. But it pays off when you sit in the car. Do the math: Six inches longer and three inches wider than the outgoing model, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class may seat one or two fewer, but those who do get in will really enjoy the spacious seating areas and comfortable seats. Hidden benefits include being excused from carting around that snotty-faced grandkid when your daughter wants to get a body wrap, and avoiding Mr. Smelly from the office when the gang goes to lunch.
So the new M-Class has more room for less people, and the seats are comfortable. That’s great for the car, but maybe not so hot for business. After all, Mercedes-Benz is taking that third-row out of an established SUV in the hopes that M-Class buyers who demand more seating will go to the upcoming R-Class. Problem is, the R will seat six, not seven, and sports a very different style than the conservative M-Class. Chances are good that M-Class people desirous for seven seats will not like the R-Class as much – and will probably not be satisfied with seating for six. Mercedes-Benz is, in essence, tying one hand behind the back of its all-new and number one luxury fighter – just when it gets off the canvas and is looking like it might connect.
Curious. In and of itself, though, the M-Class interior is above reproach. Complementing the newfound space are well-placed controls, superb interior material quality and construction that, upon initial inspection, is tight and taut. This is an SUV designed to transport its passengers in comfort and style. The eight-way power seats – cloth or leather – feature controls on the side of the seat, where they belong. Let your fingers graze the well-crafted controls, feel the heft of the climate knobs and slide along the brushed aluminum trim. Cast your eyes upon the dash controls, which are easy to see and finished in chrome trim. In the center is an information window programmed with the relevant driving and maintenance information, such as fuel consumption, direction and maintenance. This same area is where your iPod menu will pop up if you spend $200 for the add-on kit. The steering wheel has a slick new four-spoke design. The glovebox is lighted and easy to use, with a handy little shelf at the top for notepads or money clips. Don’t worry – there’s a lock on the glovebox, so it’s a great place to stow your stash. The Mercedes-Benz COMAND communications system occupies most of the center console, with a large wide-screen display for entertainment, navigation and telematics.
Notable changes abound; almost all are executed flawlessly. Especially noteworthy is the new shifter that has been moved to the steering column and is now a stalk. It’s easy to use and out of the way – but easy to get to. Cupholders are designed to sate the thirst of almost any flabby American driver, with aluminum trim and pronged stabilizers that click-clack into place with authority. That Venti Latte isn’t going anywhere but down your gullet, or, if you drive like a freak, down the front of your shirt.
But so what. Inside the M-Class, even scalding hot espresso will somehow feel okay.
Buy the 500. It’s simple – if you want the best performance out of your new M-Class, spend the extra and get yourself a new 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 500. After a daylong drive, the difference between the two powertrains in terms of torque and horsepower – and the lack of a difference when it comes to fuel consumption – may justify the $10,000 premium you’ll pay. Of course, if you really want performance, wait a year and try out the M-Class ML 63 AMG, likely to be powered by a new, naturally-aspirated 6.3-liter V8 engine. Rumors indicate that the lager-and-schnitzel boys are working on that engine right now; when ready it will generate around 470 horsepower.
Ah. But enough dreaming. Mere mortals will find that the currently available models have enough power, and the seven-speed automatic transmission that comes standard on the 350 and the 500 does a fine job of handling the power output. As a “base” model, the ML 350 runs with a new 3.5-liter V6 that manages 268 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and generates 258 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,400 rpm. The engine is fine; though on the road it feels as though it lags at times during aggressive driving, cycling a bit slowly through the upper gears and losing some of its energy in the process. Switching to the manual shift mode helps, but the 5.0-liter V8, with 302 horsepower and 339 lb.-ft of torque at 2,700 rpm, seems a better match for the ML 500’s 4,800 pounds of mass and seven-speed transmission. The 18-inch wheels, especially compared to the ML 350’s 17-inch standard wheels, improve cornering.
Still, $10,000 is a lot of cabbage for extra prowess on the road. The best thing to do is to try the ML 350 first, and if you get out with an empty feeling…call the accountant and spring for the five hundred fun blaster. Price is really the only hang up – not fuel economy, though both vehicles reportedly improved 11 percent over the 2005 model. Though the ML 500 and ML 350 are rated as super low emissions (SULEV) vehicles, EPA ratings are still atrocious: the ML 350 gets 16 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, while the ML 500 tested at 14 city / 19 hwy. A reasonable real-world average is probably three miles less for each, not much efficiency during a time when fuel economy is a growing priority among shoppers. With the difference between the V6 and the V8 at only 2 miles per gallon, price seems to be the only reason to go for the ML 350.
Just as the ML 500 offers a better powertrain, the optional Airmatic Air Suspension Package is a must-have add-on. In the Airmatic Air Suspension’s sport mode, you get excellent road feel and sharper cornering. And while the M-Class doesn’t quite measure up to the “rides like a car” claim from Mercedes-Benz executives, proper adjustment of its suspension gives the joy of driving a kick in the pants. If performance is indeed a priority, buy the ML 500 with Air Suspension; it has 18-inch wheels (19-inchers are optional) and gets an even better level of performance, as the tires stick to corners and get the most out of the V8’s 306 horsepower. Most impressive is the torque that comes out of the V8: 339 lb.-ft at 2,700 rpm gets you flying from on-ramp to fast lane. If a smooth ride is more of what you’re looking for, set the suspension to comfort, close your eyes, and poof! – you’re playing barge in the bathtub.
A little bit of both settings is probably best – for when your Mom comes to visit. She is the reason behind the existence of the 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class: a luxury wagon that handles while handling traffic, groceries and errands. And there’s no question this car will handle those chores quite fine, while keeping passengers and packages on the road with the new four-wheel electronic traction system (4-ETS+).
Never using such technology is the goal, of course, one made slightly more possible by the ease with which you can drive it down the road. Nothing, really, is hard about it – which is exactly how a luxury SUV should be. The 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is as quiet as a church mouse on the road, with nary a whine coming up from the wheels or a rattle in the cabin. Tight maneuvers and U-turns are easy, thanks to a decent turning radius. Steering – rack and pinion in the 2006 model – is improved from the previous model. In fact, the difference between outgoing and oncoming models is like the difference between a car and a truck – literally.
The new ML, to be built in Alabama, rides on a new, unibody platform – what that means to the motoring public is that the underpinnings of the M-Class are now car-based. That improves the driving experience, and the M-Class is still able to tow up to 5,000 lbs. Loading and unloading the cargo area looks to be easy, and Mercedes-Benz improved the M-Class with a partial power liftgate, as standard. The fully automatic liftgate is a must-have option, as is a cargo management area that enables you to clip loose items to one of two rails that run along the floor of the cargo area.
There’s enough power no matter which model you choose – though much more fun awaits in the ML 500. And though it took some time to get comfortable with Mercedes’ Sensotronic brakes during an afternoon spent on freeway and twisty roads, it’s hard to find fault in the overall drive quality of the car. Either M-Class likes it best on the freeway, with passing power from either the V6 or V8 engine and enough torque to accelerate into or out of traffic.
Maybe the ML 500 has too much torque, actually – you’ll want to get off the freeway and take it on routes where you can really enjoy it. That will make you late for dinner and you’ll get busted down to Cadillac duty.
Wrap-Up and Specs
So here it is, finally. And just in time to stop the leak of luxury SUV buyers to Lexus, BMW and Cadillac. At least that’s the fervent hope of the folks at Mercedes-Benz.
It’s clearly no longer an also-ran, and has definitely re-emerged. Yet no matter how good this vehicle is – and it’s very good – two critical issues may hurt its chances: the lack of a third row, and the conservative design. The new is just a bit too much of the old, perhaps, especially when standing next to the new Mercedes-Benz R-Class. It also will take a little doing to convince people to forget about that missing third-row seat, and to be wowed by the exterior style, to be sure. The trick will be to get Mr. or Mrs. Well-heeled America into the car. Once they’re in the seat, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 – and especially the ML 500 – should provide a compelling argument to stay right there
Test Vehicles: 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 and ML 500
Price Range: $39,750 - $48,500 (without $720 destination)
Engine Size and Type: 3.5-liter V6 (ML 350); 5.0-liter V8 (ML 500)
Engine Horsepower: 268 at 6,000 rpm (V6); 306 at 5,200 rpm (V8)
Engine Torque: 258 at 2,400 rpm (V6); 339 at 2,700 rpm (V8)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with TouchShift manual control
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 16/20 (ML 350); 14/19 (ML 500)
Length: 188.2 in.
Width: 75.2 in.
Wheelbase: 114.7 in.
Height: 71.5 in.
Leg room (f/r): 42.2 in./40.0 in.
Head room (f/r): 39.9 in./39.9 in.
Max. Seating Capacity: 5
Max. Cargo Volume: 72.4 cu. ft.
Max. Payload: 1,587 lbs.
Max. Towing Capacity: 5,000 lbs.
Ground Clearance: 5.5 in.
Competitors: Acura MDX, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Cadillac SRX, Hummer H2, Infiniti FX35 and FX45, Infiniti QX56, Land Rover LR3, Lexus GX 470, Lexus RX 330, Lincoln Aviator, Lincoln Navigator, Porsche Cayenne, Saab 9-7X, Volkswagen Touareg, Volvo XC90
Photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz