The 2011 Mercedes-Benz M-Class (or ML-Class) bears an interesting distinction: It is the sole vehicle in the U.S. market this year that’s sold with gasoline, clean-diesel, and hybrid powertrains.
The second generation of the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle is now in its last model year, but it’s still neatly styled, and offers a luxurious interior with lots of room for five adult-sized people and a lot of their stuff. The 2011 ML competes more with the BMW X5, the Infiniti FX, and the Volkswagen Touareq—perhaps even the pricey Porsche Cayenne—than with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer it targeted at its 1998 launch. It’s still got good off-roading chops, too, even if very few of its buyers are likely to take it anywhere more challenging than a muddy soccer field.
The gasoline ML models range from a 3.5-liter V-6 through a 5.5-liter V-8 all the way up to the absurdly fast, breathtakingly expensive ML63 AMG performance model, with its 6.3-liter turbocharged V-8. Just to give you an idea of how thirsty that one is, its EPA ratings are 11 mpg city, 15 mpg highway, and a combined gas mileage of an appalling 12 mpg. Virtually every model in the range puts power to the road through the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benz seven-speed automatic transmission.
The green choices are the ML 350 Bluetec diesel—the same engine is offered in the GL-Class seven-seat full-size SUV and the R-Class wagon as well—or the low-volume, lease-only ML 450 Hybrid. The diesel is nearer and dearer to the corporate heart of Mercedes-Benz, as the company was the first in the world to sell a diesel-engined passenger car, in the mid-1930s. The 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel offers strong pulling power, and EPA ratings of 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and a combined 21 mpg. The Bluetec engine achieves its clean exhaust by using liquid urea, a tank of which must be refilled by the dealership at every scheduled service interval. If you run out of urea, the car will disable itself to avoid producing more tailpipe emissions than are legal. You have been warned.
If you’re not so interested in diesel fuel, the ML 450 Hybrid is the company’s one experiment with a full hybrid system. That hardware was derived from the complex but effective Two-Mode Hybrid system developed by General Motors, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW for large rear- and four-wheel-drive vehicles. In the 2011 ML Hybrid, it pairs the 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine to the hybrid transmission to deliver V-8 power with V-6 fuel economy. The EPA ratings for the ML 450 Hybrid are 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined—just slightly better than the diesel.
But if you want the ML Hybrid, you’d better hurry. Mercedes-Benz has pulled out of the joint development project and is pursuing a different hybrid strategy. That means this is likely to be the only Two-Mode Hybrid model it ever builds, which may explain why it won’t sell you the ML Hybrid at all—it’ll just offer it on a three-year lease. Both diesel and hybrid ML variants come with 4Matic all-wheel-drive as standard, by the way.
Prices range from about $47,000 to just this side of $100,000, meaning there’s likely to be an ML model that suits every upscale suburban family.
For more details, see the full review of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz M Class range on our sister site, TheCarConnection.