Review and photos by Greg Wilson

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

It’s been almost eight years since Mercedes-Benz introduced the Alabama-built ML 320 mid-sized SUV. In the world of automobiles, eight years is a long time – and despite numerous engine upgrades and styling updates along the way, the ML was starting to show its age, particularly in the face of new competition.

Yes, lots of competition. I counted at least 15 SUVs that could be considered competitors to the ML for the 2006 model year: the BMW X5, Lexus RX330 and GX470, Acura MDX, Infiniti FX, Land Rover LR3, Porsche Cayenne, Volvo XC90, Volkswagen Touareg, Lincoln Aviator, Buick Rainier, Hummer H3, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero, Toyota 4Runner Limited, and crossovers like the Cadillac SRX and Audi Allroad. I’m sure I’ve missed some.

Though the first ML was a successful compromise between a comfortable urban/suburban luxury vehicle and a competent off-roader, its slab-sided and upright styling was said to resemble a running shoe. As well, Mercedes ran into some quality problems in the first few years of production at its new plant in Vance, Alabama – which irritated but didn’t deter buyers. As of 2005, Mercedes-Benz has sold about 570,000 MLs.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
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But it really was time for a redesign, primarily to address the MLs dated styling and need for more passenger room.

What’s new

The redesigned 2006 ML 350 (V6) and ML 500 (V8) are mostly new: a new unit body design with larger dimensions replaces its body-on-frame design. The 2006 ML is about 150 mm (6 in.) longer, 71 mm (2.8 in.) wider, and slightly lower than the previous model; and the wheelbase has been stretched by 93 mm (3.7 in.).

An all-new 268 horsepower DOHC, four-valve per cylinder 3.5 litre V6 engine (the same one used in the SLK 350 sports car) replaces a 232 hp SOHC, three-valve per cylinder 3.7 litre V6, while the 302 hp SOHC, 3 valve per cylinder 5.0 litre V8 in the ML 500 is a mildly updated version of the previous engine. A 7-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode replaces the 5-speed automatic.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

The 2006 model’s fully independent suspension gets a revised four-link multi-link rear suspension design, and the interior is completely new with a unique, switch-like transmission lever on the column instead of a floor shifter.

Standard features on the base 2006 ML 350 include the 7-speed automatic transmission, dual zone climate control, cloth upholstery with M-B Tex trim, 8-way power front seats with power height and recline adjustments, power windows with one-touch operation up and down, aluminum interior trim, trip computer, eight standard airbags (dual front, dual side, dual curtain, dual front knee), low tire pressure warning system, 4 wheel discs with Brake Assist and EBD, 17 inch tires and alloy wheels, and anti-theft alarm with tow-away protection.

Prices have gone up for 2006: from $51,800 to $55,750 for the base ML 350; and from $68,690 to $72,500 for the ML 500. Freight/Destination charges have also risen from $1,595 to $1,795. For those who want better fuel economy, a diesel powered ML 320 CDI with a 3.2 litre six cylinder turbo diesel powerplant will be coming later in 2006 – and for those who want worse fuel economy, the outrageous ML63 AMG model with 6.3-litre V8 will arrive sometime in 2007.


Interior impressions

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

In my opinion, what new buyers will appreciate the most about the new ML 350 is the extra interior room and the stylish, functional interior design. The passenger compartment of the 2006 ML 350 is considerably roomier than the previous ML, with more front and rear legroom and elbow room. Front passengers have 50 mm more legroom and rear passengers have 33 mm more. However, the optional third row seat is no longer offered probably due to the fact that nobody really liked sitting back there.

The whole interior has a classier, sportier, more contemporary look with an attractive blend of quality materials. My test vehicle had M-B Tex leather look-alike material with real leather seat inserts, aluminum trim, chrome rimmed gauges, centre display screen for radio and navigation functions, and optional wood trim. I didn’t like the light grey carpeting in the cabin and cargo area – it attracts dirt like a magnet. I’d recommend dark floor mats and a trunk liner.

The most interesting cabin feature is the small column-mounted shift lever that replaces the floor mounted console shift lever. It operates electronically to shift gears: flip it up two notches for Reverse, down two notches for Drive, and down or up one notch for Neutral. Push the chrome button on the end of the stalk for Park. A gear selector display is located between the two gauges to confirm what gear you’ve selected.

I was sceptical about this little lever at first, but soon found it easier and quicker to use than a regular shift lever. As well, it frees up space between the front seats for two large cupholders which have spring-loaded adjusters to fit multiple cup sizes.

Between the gauges is a Driver’s Information display, and with buttons on the steering wheel, you can toggle between different menus and sub menus. The information includes odometer, radio station, compass, average speed, and average fuel consumption.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

The central colour display screen is bright and easy to read, but it is not a touch screen. Functions, such as the radio, heater, navigation system and telephone are operated by buttons beside or below the screen. CD and DVD players are located behind the flip-up screen.

With a standard manually-operated tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and height adjustable driver’s seat, most drivers can find a comfortable seating position. Outward visibility is good, but the ML’s thick ‘C’ pillar does restrict visibility when changing lanes.

Safety is top notch. There are eight airbags: two front, two side, two curtain and two knee airbags, five three-point seat belts with adaptive belt tensioners and belt force limiters for all seating positions.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

There are five height-adjustable head restraints, and the rear head restraints are designed to overlap the top of the seats when pushed down, so they don’t obstruct rear vision. A rollover sensor can activate the curtain air bags and belt tensioners if the vehicle is about to roll over.

Surprisingly, the cargo area of the new 2006 ML is smaller than the previous model even though the new ML has larger external dimensions. Mercedes’ figures show 29.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats in the new model, and 34.7 cubic feet in the 2005 model. With the 60/40 split rear seats folded down, there’s 72.4 cu. ft. in the new model and 81.2 cu. ft. in the old model. Obviously, Mercedes has decided that passenger room is more important than cargo room. One good thing: the rear head restraints don’t have to be removed when you fold down the rear seatbacks. And a new power liftgate is now available.


Driving impressions

With 36 more horsepower and a little more torque, and weighing about 40 kg less, the 2006 ML 350 will sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 8.4 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz, or about a half second faster than the previous model. Highway passing response is impressive as this is a fairly high-revving engine, but at cruising speeds the engine just idles along in seventh gear at about 2000 rpm at 100 km/h.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

Even though the ML 350’s performance is better, fuel consumption has improved too. The new 3.5 litre V6 engine is rated at 14.6 L/100 km City (19 mpg) and 10.6 L/100 km Hwy (27 mpg). The previous 3.7 litre V6 was rated 15.5 L/100 km City (18 mpg) and 12.0 L/100 km Hwy (24 mpg).

The seven speed automatic transmission was very smooth in just about every situation except one: slowing down to a stop, it would jerk into a lower gear. I suspect there was something wrong with my particular transmission but wasn’t able to confirm prior to publication of this article. The seven-speed Direct Select transmission can also be shifted manually using rocker buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, and this works well except when you’re steering hand over hand and can’t reach the buttons. If you don’t shift, it will shift for you.

In the corners, the new ML 350 exhibits less ‘head toss’ than the old one and feels more stable in the corners, but there is some lean when turning in. It tracks well at freeway speeds and has a comfortable ride. The suspension remains fully independent, with double wishbones in front and a new rear independent 4-arm multilink set-up with stabilizer bar.

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350
Click image to enlarge

An air suspension that uses bladders instead of springs is optional. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but one of its main advantages is that the vehicle can be raised by 80 mm to provide up to 250 mm of ground clearance for serious off-road obstacles.

The ML 350’s turning circle of 11.6 metres (37.9 ft.) is okay for an SUV, but it’s spoiled by stiff steering effort at slow speeds even though the power-assisted rack and pinion steering is speed-sensitive. I think it needs more boost at slow speeds.

Its full-time four-wheel-drive system remains a four-wheel traction control system that brakes the slipping wheels thereby transferring torque to the other wheels. It normally divides engine torque 50/50 front/rear, but all the power can be sent to one wheel if necessary. This is a very effective four-wheel-drive system that weighs less than other systems and provides sufficient traction on all but the worst of roads (assuming appropriate tires are fitted).

Instead of a Low Range Gear, the 2006 ML 350 offers an electronic Descent Control system that limits speeds to 10 km/h no matter how steep or rough the road is. I tried it on a steep, gravel road and can report that it is a ‘hands-off’ system that works very well. Later in the year, the ML will be available with an optional 2-speed transfer case with Low Range. The ML also has a Hill Start Assist feature that prevents the vehicle from rolling back when starting on a steep hill. This also works well.


Verdict

The 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 offers improved performance and fuel economy in a more stylish and roomier package, but its smaller cargo area and stiff low-speed steering may be concerns to some buyers.

See also: 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class, First Drive report, by Grant Yoxon


Technical Data: 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

Base price $55,750
Options $6,010 (Navigation system $1495; heated front seats $750; power folding side mirrors $385; power tailgate $1,025; power sunroof $1,960; rear privacy glass $395)
Freight $1,795
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $63,655 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves
Horsepower 268 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 258 lb-ft @ 2400 – 5000 rpm
Transmission 7-speed automatic ‘Direct Select’
Transfer case single speed, centre diff, 50/50 split
Tires 235/65R-17 all-season performance
Curb weight 2145 kg (4730 lb.)
Wheelbase 2915 mm (114.8 in.)
Length 4788 mm (188.5 in.)
Width 1910 mm (75.2 in.) without mirrors
Height 1773 mm (69.8 in.) without roof rails
Cargo capacity 833 litres (29.4 cu. ft.) seats up
  2050 litres (72.4 cu. ft.) seats down
Fuel consumption City: 14.6 L/100 km (19 mpg) (Imperial gallons)
  Hwy: 10.6 L/100 km (27 mpg) (Imperial gallons)
Fuel type Premium unleaded 91 octane
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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