The Mercedes-Benz M-Class is arguably the vehicle most directly responsible for introducing the concept of a luxury SUV to the American market. Fifteen years later, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is one year out from a redesign commissioned to help the truck remain competitive in a segment of the market that has grown incredibly crowded thanks to the high profits and strong sales associated with it.
We had the opportunity to briefly slip behind the wheel of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class last month and put it through its paces both on and off the road. The picture that emerged was of a mid-size sport-utility vehicle that manages to keep up with the Joneses, despite no longer feeling as fresh and vital as it once did.
One of the primary advantages that the first-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class enjoyed over its peers was a design that offered boxy utility disguised by smoothed-out body work that fit in better with the luxury crowd than the mud-bogging, trailer-towing crew. The 2013 M-Class has seen its styling cues butched-up compared to its predecessors, but it has lost some of its distinctive 'otherness' in the process. Part of this turn towards anonymity has to do with the fact that there are now a half-dozen other premium SUVs that have been styled to appeal to the same demographic that the M-Class helped to create. That being said, it is quite difficult to tell the M-Class apart from the larger GL-Class crossover at a distance.
The interior of the 2013 M-Class remains a very comfortable place to spend some time. Last year's new dash, supremely well-upholstered seats, and plenty of room make the inside of the M-Class perfect for families large and small, although its five passenger capacity will quite intentionally have some shoppers looking upscale at the GL-Class. Very little exterior noise penetrates the SUV's cabin, and of course leading-edge safety equipment such as the Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system with Pre-Safe (which can activate the brakes in order to lessen the damage done by an impending collision) is a major - although pricy - selling point for the vehicle.
We were set loose to have our way with a V-6 powered ML350 on an off-road course that consisted mostly of undulating craters, muddy valleys, and loose sand. On each of these surfaces the Mercedes-Benz suv acquitted itself rather well, although it would be a stretch to call the crossover a capable off-road machine. 4MATIC all-wheel drive is standard with the 2013 M-Class, but a rear-wheel drive model is now available for buyers not interested in the system's traction advantage in low-friction environments.
We were far more impressed with the 2013 ML350's on-pavement performance. Having driven the ML350 back-to-back with both diesel and gasoline editions of the larger GL-Class (which shares the same platform), we have to tip our hats to the mid-size SUV when it comes to driving dynamics. Although not quite as connected as one might like, the steering and suspension system are tuned to the point where one can almost forget just how much mass is being piloted down the road. This is a marked contrast to the GL-Class, which continually reminds drivers of its size and heft.
Power from the 3.5-liter V-6 engine was ample, with 302 ponies and 273 lb-ft of torque doing a good job of motivating the admittedly heavy SUV. A seven-speed automatic transmission is standard with the M-Class, and we found its shifting to be crisp and timely regardless of what speed we were traveling. Two additional engines - a 240 horsepower, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6, and a 402 horsepower, 4.7-liter, twin-turbo V-8 - are also available with the M-Class, and of course AMG makes its own outrageously-powerful version of the truck. Towing for the Mercedes-Benz is rated at over 7,000 lbs, which is quite respectable for its class.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is certainly as good as it has ever been at providing luxurious A-to-B transportation for families and gear - even if the road is washed out and snow is whipping at the windshield. The availability of a diesel mill that returns 27-mpg on the highway also speaks to shoppers who feel the need to balance comfort and fuel economy.
The only real knock against the M-Class is just how well it blends in to the background. So many other automakers have used the Mercedes-Benz as the starting point for their own mid-size efforts that the original no longer comes across as strong as it once did. The ML-Class ticks the 'good' box when it comes to handling, power, and style, but our short time with the SUV never quite had us wanting to call it 'great.' Perhaps a longer stay is in order to allow the ML350 to further state its various charms.