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2006 Mercedes-Benz M Class Review

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class New Car Test Drive

by Ann Job

When Mercedes-Benz introduced its first luxury sport utility vehicle in the United States for the 1998 model year, lines of eager buyers waited to get the new Mercedes M-Class. Sales zoomed to a peak of more than 52,700 by calendar 2000 as well-to-do consumers - many of them women - simply couldn’t do without the new Mercedes that had the ruggedness of an SUV and a higher ride height than Mercedes’ cars.
Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Now, as Mercedes-Benz sells its second-generation M-Class, a lot has changed. The 2006 M-Class is bigger, faster and has a more refined interior than its predecessor. It’s restyled and uses a lighter-weight unibody construction. And by calendar 2006, the new-generation M-Class will add a new “off-road pro” package that provides greater off-road capability. This feature was not previously offered.

Still, there are no expectations for M-Class sales to top 50,000. Citing the fact there are more than two dozen upscale SUVs now competing for buyers, Mercedes officials said they project some 30,000 to 40,000 sales of the new M-Class a year in the United States. This would be an increase over the 25,681 sold of the old M-Class in calendar 2004.

Starting prices are up some $2,000 over the 2005 M-Class. Indeed, the starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a new, base, M-Class now tops $40,000 for the first time.

Specifically, at introduction, the 2006 ML350 with 3.5-liter V6, cloth seats and rather non-dressy black grille started at $40,470. The up level, 2006 ML500 with 5-liter V8, more upscale silver-colored grille and standard leather-trimmed seats started at $49,220. All M-Classes have standard full-time four-wheel drive.

In comparison, the competing Lexus RX 330 was starting at less than $37,000 for a two-wheel-drive model with V6. The RX doesn’t offer a V8 but has a gasoline-electric hybrid version that starts at more than $49,000.

Another luxury SUV competitor, the 2005 BMW X5, had a starting price of more than $42,000 for a V6 model and standard AWD.

Changes all around

The 2006 M-Class is 5.9 inches longer and 2.8 inches wider than its predecessor, though the added dimensions are integrated so neatly into the styling that consumers might not notice, from the outside, that the vehicle is larger. In fact, this new M-Class is a bit longer and taller than the segment-leading Lexus RX 330, as well as the BMW X5.

But inside, the increased size of the new M-Class is palpable. Front passengers have decent room between them, and second-row riders get additional shoulder room.

Mercedes maintained the wedge shape, but it’s more “slippery” in its design and less blockish now. The styling makes the M-Class look similar to a Lexus RX 330, which probably isn’t a bad thing, considering the RX 330 outsold the M-Class last year by 4-to-1.

Optional third-row seating is gone. Mercedes officials said the smallish rearmost seats weren’t a big draw for buyers. It’s also likely that Mercedes chose to drop them because it wants to differentiate the M-Class from another new model, the Mercedes R-Class family vehicle, which has three rows of seats standard.

Strong engines

The M-Class hasn’t lacked power, but now, it gets more.

The old 232-horsepower V6 is replaced by a 268-horse, 3.5-liter V6 with 258 lb.-ft. of torque that comes in as low as 2,400 rpm. This is the same powerplant that’s in the 2005 Mercedes SLK, and it works well to get the M-Class moving quickly, merging into traffic and past other vehicles on the highway.

The up level V8 in the new M-Class adds “plenty-of-big-power” flavor. The 5-liter engine now generates 302 horsepower and 339 lb.-ft. of torque between 2,700 and 4,750 rpm. Zero to 60 mph in this V8 model now takes 6.7 seconds, which is one of the fastest performances in the SUV segment. An even faster M-Class AMG version is due in the coming months.

The new M-Class debuts as the first SUV with a production, seven-speed automatic transmission, and shifts in the test vehicles were silky smooth, even in aggressive driving. Note this seven-speed can be shifted manually, without use of a clutch pedal. A driver can even select to skip as many as three gears during downshifts. Only thing is, when I shifted manually during my test drives, I hardly used the sixth and seventh gears, both of which felt more like overdrive gears. I had the best all-around response, though less fuel efficiency, in third and fourth gears. The previous M-Class transmission was a five-speed automatic.

In fuel economy, the M-Class still ranks at the bottom half of SUVs. But the new models are better than their predecessors. The new V6 model is rated at 16 miles a gallon in city driving and 20-mpg for highway travel, while the V8 model is rated at 14/19-mpg.

Typical Mercedes interior

Interior of the new M-Class

People who are familiar with the inside of today’s Mercedes vehicles will quickly feel comfortable in the M-Class. The dashboard audio and ventilation controls and instrument gauges are like those on other Mercedes vehicles.

Thankfully, though, Mercedes did away with the damage-prone cupholders that were located at the ends of the dashboard, where they often were banged and broken as people entered and exited the M-Class. Front-seat passengers now have two cupholders, though they are exposed, without a tasteful cover over them, in the M-Class center console.

To accommodate these cupholders, Mercedes had to move the shifter from the console to the steering column, and it’s a new electronic shifter that doesn’t require the amount of space that the old one did. So drivers must learn the workings of the new shifter, which is more of a short knob than a traditional shift lever. Its operation is akin to that in the BMW 7-Series sedan.

Other new M-Class features: Optional Sirius satellite radio and an optional auxiliary plug in the glovebox for an iPod.

The 2006 M-Class has permanent four-wheel drive via an electronic system that adapts the vehicle’s traction control to help divert power, when needed, to the wheels that can grip in slippery situations. A driver doesn’t need to do anything to engage this system, and in normal driving, half the power is automatically allocated to the front wheels and half to the rear wheels.

The upcoming optional off-road pro package for the M-Class was slated for late in the 2006 model year and will include a two-speed transfer case with low range for rugged off-roading. Unlike the previous M-Class, this low range will engage with the vehicle moving, as long as speeds are below 25 mph.

Other new traction features include a hill descent control that lets the driver set the speed - between 4 and 12 miles an hour - that he or she wants the vehicle to travel in as it goes down steep hills. And a new, start-off assist feature can keep the vehicle from rolling backward on steep hills. Mercedes’ Pre-Safe system makes its way into the new M-Class in the 2007 model year. This system can sense an impending crash and prepare front passengers - via tightening of seat belts and seat cushion adjustment, for example - and the SUV - via automatic closing of windows and sunroof - for impact.

Pleasant ride

 M-Class Profile

M-Class passengers sit higher than they do in cars, but even someone 5-feet-4, like me, can get inside the new M-Class without having to scramble awkwardly upward.

The test vehicles had quiet interiors, with little wind or road noise, even at highway speeds, and the fit and finish was first-rate.

Steering was decently responsive, with good on-center feel.

The suspension manages road bumps well to keep them from jolting passengers, and the vehicle feels stable, not loose and tippy.

Overall…a fine automobile experience.

For more information visit the Mercedes-benz website here.

Vehicle Specs

All-New ML500
All-New ML350


V8 with 302hp @ 5,600rpm

V6 with 268hp @ 6,000rpm


Seven-speed electronically controlled automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic

Seven-speed electronically controlled automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic


Four-wheel independent

Four-wheel independent


255/55 R 18 all season (255/50 R19 103H all-season high-performance optional)

235/65 R 17 104H all-season (255/50 R 19 103H optional)

Stability Control

Electronic Stability Program (ESP) integrating single brake application

Electronic Stability Program (ESP) integrating single brake application

Traction Control

Full-range traction system uses brakes and throttle intervention for wheel spin control and includes downhill traction system and 2-foot mode operation

Full-range traction system uses brakes and throttle intervention for wheel spin control and includes downhill traction system and 2-foot mode operation


Hydraulic power-assisted 4-wheel discs with 4-channel ABS anti-lock and Brake Assist

Hydraulic power-assisted 4-wheel discs with 4-channel ABS anti-lock and Brake Assist

Fuel Mileage

City/hwy - 14 / 19

City/hwy - 16 / 20