The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC is a mid-size SUV that finds itself in an unusual position for a Mercedes-Benz vehicle. The M-Class, once the focal point of the luxury brand's sport-utility lineup, has been increasingly shunted off to the side with the introduction of the stylish, compact GLK-Class, and the slightly-larger, three-row GL-Class. As the German automaker lost touch with the original spirit of the M-Class its personality has gradually faded to the point where it now rests comfortably in a sea of homogenous premium competitors, five-passenger 'utes and crossovers that have traded any semblance of identity for the ability to please most of the people, most of the time.
If this introduction to the 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class comes off as harsh - and equally dismissive of contemporaries like the Acura MDX and the Lexus RX - then you've got me all wrong. There's a definite place in the world for useful, and comfortable SUVs that serve those willing to shell out more cash than the average Ford Explorer buyer. What's more, even though the M-Class 'goes with the flow' more so than any other Mercedes-Benz model in terms of style and driving dynamics, the ML350 BlueTEC does offer an important ace-in-the-hole that goes a long way towards balancing out the more mundane aspects of its character: an amazingly economical turbodiesel drivetrain.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is available with a wide range of drivetrains which are essentially equivalent to trim levels. I've decided to focus on what the base ML350 BlueTEC (MSRP $52,895) has to offer, and what the several options packages that came with my tester provide in terms of price and equipment. The turbodiesel ML350 BlueTEC represents the second-tier of the M-Class pricing ladder, and it comes with dual automatic climate control, MB Tex imitation leather upholstery (heated, with power adjustments up front), the COMAND interface, Bluetooth connectivity, fog lights, a power liftgate, a sunroof, 19-inch rims, and a CD player with HD radio and a USB input.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC that I drove for a week was equipped with several individual options as well as packages, including the Lighting package (adaptive HID headlights with high beam assist and curve illumination), the Premium 1 package (MP3 capability and a hard drive for the stereo system, satellite radio, a navigation system, additional power adjustments for the driver's seat, power folding mirrors, a rearview camera, voice control over navigation and other vehicle systems), ambient interior lighting, heated rear seats, a harman/kardon stereo upgrade, the 'KEYLESS-GO' push-button start system, the Lane Tracking package (blind spot warning and lane keeping assist), and PARKTRONIC parking assistance. All told, these features (plus a $720 surcharge for the SUV's Palladium Silver Metallic paint) pushed the price of my tester to $61,190 - just a few dollars short of a base, seven-passenger diesel GL-Class.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC - especially in the dark silver color that my test vehicle had been dipped in - lacks most of the distinctive characteristics found with other Mercedes-Benz models. From the front, the SUV is clearly a Benz, but without the Silver Star to guide you the more generic tailgate and smooth, featureless sides of the people mover could have been lifted from any number of other mid-size haulers. The GL-Class - which in many ways stretches out the mundanity of the M-Class so as to facilitate a third row of seating - at least has its larger size going for it, but the styling of the ML350 BlueTEC can make no such claim. It's a perfectly acceptable look for a suburban commuter, but it's not the kind of design that encourages owners to develop a deep personal attachment to the vehicle.
The passenger compartment of the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC is cut from similar cloth. The dashboard and control surfaces embody the antiseptic, ultra-clean layout that has spread across the premium SUV segment, and while everything is in its right place and formed out of suitably nice-to-touch materials, it all comes across as a bit sterile. The M-Class almost feels as though its interior has been scientifically calculated to offer a very precise level of luxury befitting its price point, with all traces of personality erased in favor of exacting proportions and bland, but modern presentation.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC is an eminently practical - and comfortable - mode of transportation. To test out just how much of a road warrior the ML350 BlueTEC really was, I drove from Montreal, Quebec to the New York International Auto Show in New York City. The roughly six-hour jaunt (each way) gave me plenty of time to reflect on the supportive nature of the vehicle's front seats. It was only towards the end of the first leg of my non-stop journey that I began to notice any amount of posterior numbness, which is to be expected when pushing so long in a single stretch without a break to stretch my legs. Sound insulation inside the cabin was excellent, and I enjoyed the M-Class' seating position and the ability it gave me to see far ahead of the mass of traffic that surrounded me.
Rear seat passengers also enjoy significant legroom, making the second row of the Mercedes-Benz suv a pleasant place to pass the time as well. From a cargo perspective, 71 cubic feet in total are available with those same accommodations folded forward, but with 36 cubic feet on offer between the rear seatback and the hatch it's likely that only over-sized items will require reconfiguring the ML350 BlueTEC's interior.
Any review you read of a modern Mercedes-Benz automobile is going to discuss the COMAND vehicle interface. COMAND is accessed via a big dial that sits to the left on the ML350 BlueTEC's console, and it is by moving this rotary controller that drivers are able to access the various menus and commands displayed on the LCD screen that takes up the majority of the SUV's center stack real estate. In some ways COMAND is intuitive, scrolling horizontal menu selections to the left and the right or even up and down on longer lists. In others, the way one must navigate from the top to the middle to the bottom of the LCD screen in order to access certain features is not quite as straightforward. There are a number of buttons arrayed just below the screen that map out to key COMAND functions, but the features that have been omitted from these duplicate commands are frustrating. Why a Radio button but no Media button, for example, forcing me to interrupt play of my USB tunes when moving from the navigation screen to the entertainment controls?
A bigger problem for me had to do with the ML350 BlueTEC's navigation prompts. On my jaunt from Montreal to New York City I had no issues hearing the commands telling me when and where to turn to arrive safely at my destination. Heading back home, however, was a different story. Somehow, the volume level of the prompts had been dialed down to the point where I couldn't hear them over the open moonroof, and search as I might I could find no menu selection that would let me return them to their previous loudness. Even more puzzling was the fact that traffic alerts - also provided using voice prompts - were still blasting out with the same boisterous intensity as before. I closed the moonroof but still missed several key turns, which was frustrating, to say the least. On the plus side, the navigation system was generally quite good at processing my own spoken commands, with a marginally lower success rate for the same when talking to the Bluetooth hands-free phone feature.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC comes standard with dual forward airbags, side impact airbags front and rear (mounted to the seats), side curtain airbags, and a driver's knee airbags. Hill-start assist and hill-descent control are also included free of charge, as are self-tightening seatbelts and the mbrace2 telematics feature that consists of a smartphone app that can assist owners in contact emergency services.
The Lane Tracking package also provided my test vehicle with a blind spot assistance system and a lane keeping feature. Each of these worked quite well during my lengthy road trip, although the blind spot indicators in the mirrors light up yellow when the SUV is moving at slow speeds or stopped completely. Mercedes-Benz says that this is to let you know that the system is disabled until a certain velocity is reached, but it's distracting and will most likely be interpreted as either a fault or, you know, an actual blind spot warning by most drivers.
My ML350 BlueTEC came with another standard active safety feature that I found a bit puzzling. Attention Assist purports to track how you are piloting a Mercedes-Benz product with the goal of determining whether you are drowsy enough to need a break from the road. According to the literature, 70 individual parameters about your driving style are analyzed during the first portion of your drive and then compared against later measurements to check up on your alertness quotient. The first time Attention Assist flashed and beeped a warning at me was on my way to NYC when a sudden swerving maneuver brought on by a lean-in to correct a COMAND input scared the SUV into questioning my devotion to remaining on the road. On the way home, however - a segment of the journey during which I actually took a rest break - the system went off no less than five times, and seemingly at random. This had me questioning the efficacy of its drowsiness-detection algorithms.
One more piece of mystifying safety gear: adaptive high beam assistance. I used this feature while traveling on dark upstate New York highways, and as far as I can tell it never once activated the vehicle's high beams even when I was traveling through dark stretches of road. The headlight output never varied once - it was always the same brightness regardless of whether I was facing oncoming traffic or staring into the abyss of New York's forests.
2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC Crash-Test Ratings: There is no crash test data available for the 2013 Mercedes-Benz M-Class. The identical 2012 model achieved a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in its independent crash testing.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC is outfitted with a 240 horsepower, 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 engine that also produces a stump-pulling 455 lb-ft of torque. Full-time 4MATIC four-wheel drive is standard with the diesel M-Class, and a seven-speed automatic is the only available transmission for the SUV.
The EPA rates the ML350 BlueTEC at an outstanding 20-mpg in stop in go driving and 28-mpg on the highway, and I am happy to report that the very heavy sport-utility vehicle turned in an impressive 27-mpg in real-world highway fuel mileage on my 700 mile New York City road trip. Even when taking into account around-town driving, the vehicle's 23-mpg combined performance matched the factory figures. This is an exceptionally rare achievement for a luxury suv, particularly one that weighs in at 5,000 lbs.
There are two distinct sides to the driving experience offered by the 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC. I very much enjoyed the excellent torque delivery and smooth acceleration provided by its turbodiesel engine. Although 240 horses might not seem like much, when combined with the prodigious amounts of twist produced by the ML350 BlueTEC's V-6, the SUV was able to pass at will on the highway as well as surprise other drivers at stoplights with its willingness to hustle. The seven-speed autobox is well-matched to the engine's torque curve (although I do wish it wouldn't flash the Park icon at me on the dash every time the vehicle came to a stop - a side effect of Mercedes-Benz's push-button transmission stalk), and the fact that I traveled 350 miles while only consuming 2/3 of a tank of fuel - in a truck, no less - was outstanding.
The downside to piloting the M-Class has to do with its rather milquetoast dynamics. With a suspension that is setup to provide great comfort at all speeds (particularly on the highway), the ML350 BlueTEC displayed significant body roll in the corners and on-ramps that I encountered during my road trip. Throw in steering that feels completely disconnected from the front wheels, and the Mercedes-Benz just doesn't have anything to offer from a handling perspective to set itself apart from any other luxury crossover or SUV. I was particularly thrown off by the vehicle's brakes, which required significant pedal travel to activate and more than once had me cursing their laziness as I attempted to kick off cruise control and match speeds with the rest of the traffic around me.
So let me summarize: the 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 doesn't engage the eye or the soul, as it lacks any kind of real personality in either its sheet metal or in the driving experience that it has to offer. It also provides excellent practicality, heaps of comfort, and the kind of fuel mileage that is in the upper tier of what any SUV has to offer on the modern market. In short, it's a good luxury commuter for family shoppers who are interested in spending less at the fuel pump (without sacrificing power) and who honestly don't care all that much about how their 'ute handles or looks as long as its comfortable and doesn't rock the boat in the company parking lot.
Fair enough - and depending on how many options are ladled onto the ML350 BlueTEC at buying time, the mid-size SUV isn't even that pricey for what it has to offer. The complacency with which Mercedes-Benz has addressed the design evolution of the M-Class, however, has made the model a sitting duck for hungrier automakers with premium aspirations of their own. A perfect example is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel. This sport-utility vehicle is just as comfortable and roomy as the Mercedes-Benz, and it looks and drives better, offers a more stylish interior, and when loaded to the gills with equipment it boasts an MSRP that is tens of thousands of dollars lower than that of a comparably-outfitted M-Class. Is it heresy to mention Jeep and Mercedes-Benz in the same sentence? Drive them both, and then get back to me. While you're at it, see if you can convince a Mercedes-Benz product planner to do the same thing - before it's too late.
Mercedes-Benz Canada supplied the vehicle for this review