There's a place in this world for vehicles that don't claim to do much more than transport passengers and all of their associated gear from point A to point B. You'll find these models all over the automotive map, from the entry-level segment all the way up to lofty luxury crossovers and SUVs that cushion their so-so driving experiences with as many entertainment distractions and creature comforts as they can cram into the cabin.
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC can certainly claim membership in the latter group, but it offers a twist on the standard premium formula: turbodiesel power and efficiency. The current M-Class might not be at the leading edge of the luxury SUV wave like it was in the 1990s when it played a crucial role in stoking the public's ardour for these pricy people movers, but its saving grace is a commitment to diesel technology that allows it to offer exceptional fuel economy compared to many of its competitors - without sacrificing performance.
The Most Conservative Mercedes-Benz Design
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC features styling that is clearly intended to offend the fewest well-heeled customer sensibilities. From almost any angle - and especially in the muted dark silver (or 'Palladium,' in MB-speak) tones of the test vehicle I drove - the M-Class does its best to not stand out in a crowded parking lot filled with similarly conservative SUV designs. There's nothing unpleasant about the ML350's appearance, but it doesn't cut through the noise and engage the eye, which is unfortunate given the sea of premium family haulers on the market. Blandness is not a feature of all Mercedes-Benz SUVs, but it has unfortunately colonized the M-Class product range.
Inside it's a similar story. Form follows function in the ML350 BlueTEC, particularly when it comes to the dashboard, the center stack, and the vehicle's control systems. There is little visual excitement to be found within the vehicle's passenger compartment, although comfort is excellent in the first two positions and Mercedes-Benz has clearly made an effort to use high quality materials throughout the cabin. One simply doesn't feel spoiled by the straightforward presentation of the M-Class' control surfaces.
COMAND-ing Interior Room
The centerpiece of the ML350's entertainment/communications/systems interface is the COMAND rotary controller, which is linked to an 11.2 c.m. LCD screen that displays navigation information, music, and video menus, and also offers access to a host of other vehicle functions. COMAND is not complicated to use but it's difficult to master, as it requires using the dial to navigate from one area of the screen to another in order to access specific context-sensitive menus and commands. Voice control for many of the vehicle's features is also provided, and while it isn't perfect it did help to streamline address inputs and music selection.
I had the chance to take the Mercedes-Benz MLG350 BlueTEC 4MATIC on an extended road trip totalling over 1,000 kilometres, and I have to say that I was impressed with the comfort provided by the vehicle's heated front seats. On only a few occasions did I find myself shifting around to find a more supportive position, a fact that is more attributable to my poor posture than to the design the thrones themselves. Second-row passenger room is generous in the M-Class, as is its cargo area.
Top-Notch Turbodiesel Drivetrain
That same 12-hour journey (broken up into two 6-hour stints) also let me sample the extremely impressive fuel economy offered by the 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC's turbodiesel engine. The 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel V6 grinds out 240 horsepower and 455 lb-ft of torque, and the latter figure made cruising at all speeds a truly effortless experience. Acceleration was also strong, with a surge of power propelling the heavy SUV forward at more-than-acceptable rate, even from a stop. The cabin was well-insulated from potential diesel clatter, but from the outside it was still evident that an oil-burner sat under the vehicle's hood.
Just how efficient was the ML350 BlueTEC? On the first 560 km leg of my trip, the truck consumed a mere 2/3 of a tank of fuel, which translates into fuel mileage of 8.71 l/100 km. In fact, in mixed city/highway driving, the M-Class returned 10 l/100 km, which is very close to its 8.9 l/100 km combined factory rating. These numbers are simply incredible for a vehicle that not only weighs 2,290 kilograms, but which also comes with full-time four-wheel drive. This is one SUV whose highway stops will dictated by the limits of one's bladder control, not the size of its fuel tank.
I cannot lay enough superlatives at the feet of the M-Class' turbodiesel performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the vehicle's driving experience leaves something to be desired. The ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC floats down the highway and absorbs punishing pavement with ease, but send it too quickly into a corner and it lists like a schooner in a squall. Once again, it’s not so much that there is anything 'wrong' with the mid-size SUV's handling - it's more a lack of any real dynamic engagement from the steering, the suspension system, and especially the braking, which requires significant pedal effort to activate.
A Luxury Appliance
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC fails to rise above the status of 'luxury appliance' for the family set. This is one SUV that has been dipped in vanilla - of the pleasing, high-end French variety - but vanilla nonetheless, and while it's certainly roomy, comfortable, and relatively affordable (starting at $61,000) for its class, the M-Class is ultimately uninspiring whether being driven or simply put on display.
The saving grace for this competent premium wallflower is its turbodiesel engine. Moving so much bulk so quickly while consuming so little fuel is an outstanding accomplishment, and Mercedes-Benz's decision to price the diesel edition of the M-Class a mere $1,500 higher than the entry-level gas model is one to be applauded. Given the high price of fuel, the decision to upgrade to the powerful, yet frugal ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC over the standard ML350 is a no-brainer for Canadian shoppers, provided they can resist the temptations presented by the brand's pricy options packages.
|Test model||2013 Mercedes-Benz M Class|
|Trim level||ML350 BlueTEC 4Matic|
|Price range||$58,900 - $100,900|
|Price as tested||$68,300|
|Warranty (basic)||4 years / 80,000 km|
|Warranty (powertrain)||4 years / 80,000 km|
|Fuel economy (city/highway/observed)||10.5 / 7.3 / 10 l/100km|
|Options||Driving Assistance package Bi-Xenon Headlamps package Premium package|
|Competitive models||Acura MDX, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKX, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, Volvo XC90|
|Fuel Consumption||Fuel mileage for the turbodiesel SUV is unbeatable.|
|Value for price||The turbodiesel edition of the M-Class is priced competitively when compared to other luxury SUVs.|
|Styling||Bland and conservative are the catchwords for the ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC.|
|Comfort||A great road-trip companion.|
|Performance||Power is excellent, but handling reveals a heavy SUV that prefers to tack in a straight line.|
|Overall||The efficiency of the BlueTEC diesel engine is excellent - I only wish that it came wrapped in a more dynamic package.|