Mercedes-Benz Made History Here

2012 Mercedes-Benz ML350.

It’s fairly easy to tell that the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV is all new, with a slightly more chiseled design. This third-generation example continues on as the company’s “mainstream” luxury crossover vehicle, sandwiched nicely between the bigger GL and the smaller GLK.

Looking back about fifteen years, the original ML model was a significant vehicle for Mercedes, as it helped to define a new segment in the automotive world: German brand luxury SUV. With the exception of the obscure military-esque Gelandewagen (or “G Class” as it’s now known), no German company had done such a vehicle before.

The year 1997 was also significant, as it not only saw the first ML350 roll off the assembly line, but was also when Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama assembly plant debut as well. The factory was built to essentially be the home base for a vehicle designed and built for Americans.

The SUV boom of the early 1990s got noticed by the folks back in Stuttgart, Germany. Dealers saw countless customers walk away from Mercedes sedans to go across the street and buy something like a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer. The writing was on the wall.

So with incentives from the state of Alabama, a new production facility near Tuscaloosa was built. Amid lots of fanfare to show that a German vehicle could be built just as well outside of Germany if the factory were modern enough, buyers started snapping up the new Mercedes-Benz SUV.

There were some glitches, however. Quality levels of some of the early vehicles were not up to usual Mercedes snuff. Owners complained about cheap plastics, squeaks and rattles, and a feeling that maybe an American-built Benz wasn’t as good as the ones rolling out of the home country.

The quality issues were worked out, a second-generation M-Class came along in 2005, and now we get the latest refinement of the American-built vehicle. (And the M is truly American built. The Alabama factory is the exclusive source for these, no matter where in the world they’re sold. Yes, including Germany.)

The 2012 M-Class lineup starts with the ML350, which sports a gasoline V6 engine and a base price of just under $50,000. Options are numerous, and can send the price north of $60,000 with ease if you check a lot of boxes. Pricey, yes, but right in there with competitors from Lexus and BMW.

Next up the model rung is the ML350 BlueTEC, which is Mercedes-Benz’s modern diesel system. You’d almost never know you were in a diesel, except for the excellent fuel economy (20 mpg city and 25 highway, versus 17 and 22 for the gasoline version) and off-the-line torque. That one starts at $53,840, a nearly $5000 premium over the regular ML350. From a casual, non-scientific eyeball survey of 2012 M’s already on the road, I’d say more than half the customers are going for the diesel so far.

If you don’t care at all about fuel economy, or price, there’s also the mighty ML63 AMG. Packing 518 horsepower via a twin-turbo V8, this very quick SUV should be enough power for anyone. Or if it’s not, the optional “AMG Performance Package” bumps the power level to 550 for an extra $6550. That package takes the sticker price for the super M-Class to over $100,000.

But even that one gets a little bit of fuel saving technology. At stop lights, the engine can shut off, much the way that hybrid vehicles have done for years. It might seem a little freaky at first (especially if you ever owned a car that died when it wasn’t supposed to), but these days car makers are looking for every little trick for better efficiency.

Mercedes-Benz is a company that obviously has a long and storied history. But one chapter of that history was written right here, in the United States of America.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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