Charm offensive

2006, Mercedes-Benz, M-Class

Once upon a time, the name Mercedes-Benz reflected the status, wealth and charm of the men- and women-about-town who drove the fashionable sedans, coupes and roadsters with the three-pointed star. This representation hasn't much changed with the arrival of the 21st-century, but it has expanded now to include families-about-town as well. Beginning in the mid-1990s with the M-Class, Mercedes added "kids-'n'-cargo" hauling sport/utility vehicles to its line-up. The result was a new dimension of real-world convenience that was once strictly alien to the Mercedes-Benz ethos.

This year marks a further intensification by the company to broaden its vehicle options for North America's very diverse transportation needs. Debuting this fall is M-B's new R-Class crossover wagon, or Grand Touring Vehicle as the company wants to position it. Together with an entirely redesigned 2006 M-Class, Mercedes now offers family-oriented customers a quartet of five- and six-passenger vehicles that can serve a variety of on- and off-road functions.

The new M-Class sport/utes for 2006 usher Mercedes into its second generation as a maker of "personal trucks." Accordingly, many lessons learned with the original M-Class are now incorporated as distinct improvements.

Available with both V6 (ML350) and V8 (ML500) power, the new M-Class retains its unique combination of highway luxury and off-road capability. Most conspicuously, exterior styling has been refined to express speed and agility in contrast to the original's boxier, more pug-nosed appearance.

Mechanical and dimensional changes are subtle yet significant. A prodigious new seven-speed automatic transmission improves both power and fuel-efficiency. Its "TouchShift" manual mode, moreover, can be operated directly at the steering wheel for hands-on-the-wheel safety. Power profiles are 268 horsepower for the twin-cam, 3.5-liter V6 and 302 hp for the single-overhead-cam, 5.0-liter V8.

Both are rated low-emissions vehicles, but they're relatively low-mileage ones as well, despite the transmission's contributions to efficiency. The ML350 achieves 16 mpg/city and 20 mpg/highway, whereas the ML500 only musters 14 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway. Both, moreover, require premium fuel for optimum results.

Interior space improves for 2006, and comfort is the chief beneficiary. The M-Class is now exclusively a 5-passenger SUV, with no optional third-row bench available. Practically speaking, however, the second row is only optimally comfortable for two adults. Thanks to a split-folding seatback, cargo-packing possibilities are manifold: The M-Class can haul from 29.4 to 72 cubic feet at payload weights around 1,600 lbs.

It can also tow up to 5,000 lbs. of playthings-with either engine. Full-time all-wheel-drive, moreover, means that on- or off-road, the 2006 M-Class is able to cater to the active lifestyles of families that desire Mercedes' distinctive blend of performance, safety and luxury.

Mercedes-Benz is poised to wow North America come October with the introduction of a much-anticipated R-Class crossover vehicle. This six-passenger wagon may indeed borrow elements from Mercedes' sedans and its M-Class SUVs, but it looks and performs like no other vehicle in the M-B line-up.

Taking a page from sibling Chrysler's six-passenger Pacifica wagon, the R350 (with 3.5-liter V6) and R500 (5.0-liter V8) both package three rows of luxurious seating in a layout resembling a private jet aircraft. Cargo handling is especially convenient thanks to second- and third-row folding seatbacks. With all seats in use, a 9.4 cubic-foot space lies open under the rear hatch. Folding the third row flat yields 34.5 cubic feet; and maximum capacity, while still allowing two occupants up front, is 72 cubic feet.

From the exterior, however, the new R-Class is deceptively proportioned. Unless they're parked side by side, it's virtually impossible to imagine the new R-van extending beyond the M-Class by more than a foot. Not only that, Mercedes' R-Class is nearly half-a-foot longer than that benchmark of overindulgence, the Cadillac Escalade. And yet, although the V8-powered R500 is priced comparably to a fully equipped Escalade, it clearly eschews the effrontery of "bling" in preference for the subtlety of panache.

The R-Class models share the same pair of engines powering their M-Class cousins. The seven-speed automatic transmission with TouchShift likewise completes each all-wheel-drive powertrain. Fuel mileage (presently unannounced) is likely to be marginally behind those of the M-Class, however, since both R-Class models, respectively, are about 100 lbs. heavier.

Suspension tuning is predicated upon highway touring in the grand style, with off-roading hardly a consideration. The R-van is, nevertheless, true to its Mercedes-Benz pedigree. Beyond the comfortable ride is a very sporting handling feel. Borrowing particularly from Mercedes' E-Class heritage, the new R-Class has developed an appetite for the backroads that will be unfamiliar to anyone expecting floaty-boaty minivan tendencies.

All-time all-wheel-drive contributes significantly-and positively-to the R-Class drive feel. It's the same system employed in Mercedes' M-Class SUVs, and it's largely transparent and unnoticeable to the driver. During spirited cornering, however, AWD tends to load the suspension geometry at each corner of the vehicle for optimum control; and the resulting neutral handling feels predictable and unperturbed. This is unquestionably an inherent safety factor as well, and it well befits a vehicle with a full complement of front and side airbags, including head-curtain protection for all three rows.

The chief point of distinction for the new R-Class is its emphasis upon stately luxury for up to six occupants. Zoned climate controls for each region in the cabin combine with entertainment options like dual-source/dual-screen DVDs to provide passengers tailor-made travel experiences. An optional iPod interface even displays Macintosh's distinctive iTunes menus in the dashboard's monitor screen.

Needless to say, cupholders abound, with at least one for every seat; but in a telling concession to our liquid-lavished era of motoring, Mercedes has even thought to build a bottle opener into this R-van. With the innovative new R-Class, Mercedes accomplishes an interesting feat: Individual comforts and convenience for six in a luxurious communal setting.

5-pass., 4-door; AWD; 3.5-liter DOHC V6, 268 hp/258 ft.-lbs.; 16 mpg/City, 20 mpg/Hwy., w/ premium; 5.0-liter SOHC V8, 302 hp/339 ft.-lbs.; 14 mpg/City, 19 mpg/Hwy., w/ premium; 7-sp. auto w/ TouchShift; cargo volume: 29.4-72 cu. ft.; tow: 5,000 lbs., payload: 1496-1,615 lbs.; base prices, w/ dual-zone HVAC, descent control, AM/FM/CD, 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 6 std. airbags: M350 V6-$39,750; M500 V8-$48,500

6-pass., 4-door; AWD; 3.5-liter DOHC V6, 268 hp/258 ft.-lbs.; 5.0-liter SOHC V8, 302 hp/339 ft.-lbs.; 7-sp. auto w/ TouchShift; cargo volume: 9.4-34.5-72.2 cu. ft.; payload: 1632-1,663 lbs.; base prices, w/ multi-zone HVAC, AM/FM/CD, 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 6 std. airbags: R350 V6-$48,775; R500 V8-$56,275

By Marc Stengel

More Mercedes-Benz car reviews?

Images of the 2006, Mercedes-Benz M-Class

2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class