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2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 4MATIC BlueTEC TDI Review

by Martha Hindes

2012 Green SUV Buyer's Guide - Road & Travel Top 10 Picks

Audi Q7 TDI Clean Diesel

Jeep Grand Cherokee FFV

BMW X5 xDrive 35d Diesel

Lexus RX 450h Hybrid

Hyundai Tucson Hybrid

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

Thank California there's a clean, green Mercedes-Benz diesel machine to drive around in. Some five years back or so the environmentally-conscious state wouldn't let stinky diesel powered vehicles in the door. Too much soot and other bad-for-the-air stuff could be let loose to sully California's already smoggy environment. That led to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350 4MATIC BlueTEC TDI sport utility.

The transition, of course, was M-B's response to stringent regulations put in place by the Golden State and quickly adopted by 15 more. The resulting clean diesel with the interminably long official M-Class name (apparently a Mercedes-Benz trademark at times) is a snazzy, responsive mid-size "sport ute" that can be driven throughout the U.S. with barely a shred of guilt.

We can break that extended name down a bit.

The 2012 version of MB's five-seater M-Class SUV is the newly revised staple sport utility that has graced American Roads since its inauguration in 1998. Mercedes-Benz takes credit for having it start the industry's trend toward more car-like SUVs, or "crossovers," in place of the heftier, more utilitarian truck-based models that previously ruled the sport utility scene. That followed some pretty intense straw polls and other research by the German auto maker to learn what American drivers really wanted in an SUV.

In this third generation revision, MB's prominent and instantly recognizable three pointed star logo, as always, sits mid-center in the updated "face" or grille of the ML350. That sets a framework for the smoothly molded contour that follows. Despite its perceived territory as on-road and carlike in ride, it bears the long wheelbase and short overhangs indigenous to a vehicle capable of traveling on unpaved terrain.

(At Road & Travel, we remember that our introduction to the original M-Class included a torturous, twisting off-road trench test that should have wrenched the frame out of line but did not. In fact, while hanging at an angle, we even were able to open the door in mid-test without any problem closing it again. That foundation remains in 2012's update.)

The exterior impression is of a powerful, but perfectly-balanced body, with a high belt-line that wraps seamlessly around the exterior including the rear liftgate. M-B cites the distinctively angled "C" pillar at the rear, an identifiable cue held over for the revamped version. With width a shade wider and height a shade lower, the M-Class has a dominant, sporty stance.

Inside, the M-Class gets treated with a soft lux touch in a more spacious cabin. Wood and muted aluminum trim lend a harmonious mood. High tech audio accessories including 10-gigabyte music storage are controlled by a COMAND center display in mid dash over a control panel for accessories.

The look is clean, but not fussy. The new M-Class gets first use of Mercedes-Benz's iPad Docking Station that gives hands-free access to movies, music, pictures, games and the Internet. Options include a navigation system with 3D display and deliciously tactile harman/kardon audio with digital surround sound. Heated and cooled cup holders keep drinks at an ideal temperature.

Power for the all-wheel-drive M-Class TDI comes from a turbo-charged, "purpose" designed 3.0-liter V-6 diesel paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission. That engine generates 240-horsepower and an eye-opening 455 lb.-ft. of torque, designed to move one quickly away from traffic stops and for passing grunt. Fuel economy that is 30 percent better than a comparable gasoline engine, should result in MPG numbers in the 20-city/25-highway range.

Dual tank fillers in the M-Class TDI live side by side and distinguish it from a gasoline powered one. There's a filler cap in green for diesel fuel and the other in blue for occasional recharges of the urea-based "AdBlue" liquid that mists away toxic nitrous oxide (NOx) that could contribute to air pollution, and that helps explain M-B's "BlueTEC" name.

Among safety systems that include swiveling headlamps for nighttime road clarity, the 2012 revision includes a high technology called ATTENTION ASSIST (apparently in all caps to really grab one's attention). It quickly learns a person's driving habits and warns when steering drifts out of lane or becomes erratic.

Pricing for the diesel M-Class version starts about $51K and can grow substantially with add-ons. But Mercedes-Benz's smart crossover can lap the competition on the road in comfort, style, responsive handling and superior ride. Think of it as long haul luxury on wheels.

For more info on Mercedes brands, click here.