April 16, 2007

Photo Gallery: 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

Specifications: 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

The Guide: 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

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When Dylan went electric, he shocked and shook up the folk music world.

Don’t expect similar reverberations now that the Mercedes M-Class has gone diesel, but at least the fuel is beginning to clean up its act here in North America.

For 2007, Mercedes offers its all-wheel-drive M sport utility platform with an all-new CDI engine, a 3.0-litre turbo diesel powerplant producing 215 horses and a stump-pulling 398 lb.-ft. of torque. Not only do you get the added economy of a diesel engine, you get the extra torque that, when it comes to towing, is more in the range of a small-block V8 than a medium-block V6.

For comparison’s sake, consider the 2007 ML350, essentially the same vehicle as the ML320 though with a gasoline engine rather than the CDI turbo diesel. While the diesel engine gets a reported 11 L/100km in city driving conditions and 8.1 on the highway, the ML350’s 3.5-litre V6 powerplant produces 268 horses and 258 lb.-ft. of torque and has fuel ratings of 14.1 L/100km in the city and 10.1 on the highway.

So, while being a little pony-challenged in a head-to-head meeting of the two engines, the diesel blows away the torque performance of the regular fuel engine, and likewise the fuel economy.

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The ML350 base price is $58,300; the ML320, $59,800. Which brings us to the big question: when faced with these cold hard numbers, why would anyone consider the ML350 over the diesel ML320?

The simple answer is the traditional North American perception of diesel: loud engines, smelly exhaust and a paucity of diesel pumps in urban areas. But as is so often the case with perceptions, particularly long-held ones, there is more fiction than fact in these beliefs.

Diesel engine technology today, thanks in large part to its widespread application in passenger vehicles in Europe, makes the diesels of the 1970s and 1980s look like turn-of-the-19th-Century work engines. The days of hearing from a block away that distinctive diesel knock coming from a big Mercedes sedan are long gone. The only ‘different’ sound coming from the third generation CDI engine is the whine of the turbocharger.

As to the smelly tailpipe and the once telltale blue exhaust, 21st Century diesel fuel has certainly cleaned up its act. Thanks to European emission standards and preferential taxation in the latter stages of the 20th Century, oil companies have been required to dramatically reduce the level of sulphur in diesel fuels. Last year, North America adopted more stringent diesel emission standards in combination with the change to ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD), a cleaner burning and less environmentally damaging form of diesel fuel.

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Mercedes cutting edge emissions-control technology, available on the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 Bluetec, was declared the Best New Technology for 2007 by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Bluetec enables diesel engines to meet strict new North American emissions standards, thus allowing customers here to access to the many diesel advantages that Europeans have long enjoyed.

Though not the BlueTec engine, the ML320’s diesel, when combined with the elegant interior and civilized driving characteristic of the M-Class platform, makes for a formidable argument for bucking up the extra grand-and-a-half for the diesel SUV.

With a highway cruising range north of 900 kilometres and the knowledge that diesel is as common on the open roads as bug-covered headlights, the 2007 ML320 is the ideal ride for luxurious long hauls. The fuel is also becoming more widely available in urban areas, particularly larger Canadian cities. However, diesel-buying planning is still required in some areas.

My tester came with the Premium and the Sport packages as options, and when configured as such, there is little lacking for even the most sophisticated and discerning tastes. The $4,300 Premium package includes 10-way power adjustable front seats with power steering column and three-position memory, COMAND navigation system, heated rear seats, power tailgate and exterior power folding mirrors.

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The $2,500 Sport package adds front sport seats, blue tinted glass, aluminum trim, interior lighting package, Alcantara/ARTICO upholstery, an interior appearance package, an exterior appearance package, and 19-inch five-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels.

Just as the cabin’s layout, fit and finish and materials are all first-rate, so too is the performance of the ML320. Though not as powerful as its M-Class stablemates, the ML320’s 215 ponies are more than up to the job of getting the sport SUV off the line in a hurry. And the awesome torque figure makes highway passing a breeze.

Handling and cornering, especially at speed, are rock solid, in large part to the ML320’s double-wishbone front suspension and a newly-developed four-link rear suspension.

When the M-Class debuted almost a decade ago, it was the only sport utility in its class with four-wheel independent suspension. In addition, the sport SUV was one of the first to be designed from the ground up, rather than being based on an existing truck platform. That first generation M-Class was in large part responsible for the headlong dive into “luxury’ car-like SUV building by so many automakers. (Who would ever have thought Porsche would produce a ‘truck’?).

The 2007 ML320 comes with a standard 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission, permanent four-wheel-drive system and optional features such as height-adjustable AIRMATIC air suspension. A revised four-wheel traction control system now incorporates functions such as a Downhill Speed Regulator and Hill-Start Assist.

New options include a rear seat entertainment system, a rear-view camera that shows the area behind the vehicle when reverse is engaged, and a Bluetooth interface for cell phones that provides integrated, hands-free operation without docking the handset.

Standard safety features include Electronic Stability Program (ESP), two-stage adaptive air bags for the driver and front passenger, door-mounted side air bags in the front, curtain side air bags and adaptive belt tensioners and belt force limiters. A rollover sensor can activate the belt tensioner and curtain air bags if the vehicle senses an imminent rollover.

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Just as it did back in 1998, the M-Class continues to set the bar high. The first-generation M-Class won numerous awards, including AJAC’s Car of the Year and the North American Truck of the Year.

Bob Dylan sang that the times were a changing, and for the 2007 M-Class and consumers of the luxury sport SUV, the change to a diesel engine option certainly something worth singing about.

Pricing: 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

Base price: $59,800

Options: $ 6,800 (Premium Package $4,300; Sport Package $2,500)

Freight $ 1,795

A/C tax $ 100

Price as tested: $68,495


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