MANY YEARS BEFORE THE TERM “Carmageddon” warned of an epic traffic jam in southern California, it could have referred to a trend that was sweeping through the ranks of luxury auto makers.

Purists figured the end was near when BMW, Lexus, Audi, Lincoln, Cadillac, Volvo and later on Porsche decided their car-only portfolios needed something more in the way of utility and off-road capability.

It all started with Mercedes and the M-Class, which went on sale in September 1997 with great fanfare, produced in a new plant near Tuscaloosa, AL.

The market hasn't been the same since. Mercedes-Benz arrives in September with a new M-Class destined to uphold both its legacy and place in the market.

What makes the '12 ML special are two new or improved engines; advanced suspension controls to enhance ride and handling; upgraded interiors; and acute attention to chassis engineering.

At first glance, the '12 ML350 and diesel ML350 BlueTEC don't appear to be significantly different from their predecessors, based on the second-generation M-Class that arrived in 2005.

The new model picks up the identical design of the tapered C-pillar and applies a similar beltline that descends toward the front. The shape of the greenhouse and roofline appear to be unaltered.

From behind, the ML looks completely new and more sporty, thanks to a clever bumper design and brushed-aluminum skid plate that hide the dual exhaust. The backlight is more angled, and the beltline flows neatly around the back.

Under the hood, Mercedes offers two engines that perform admirably: an all-new 302-hp 3.5L direct-injection gasoline V-6 and 240-hp 3.0L BlueTEC turbodiesel, available in all 50 states.

No hybrid is in the plans, although the ML450 Hybrid was available previously. The potent 4.6L BiTurbo V-8 will be offered in 2012.

Both gas and diesel V-6s are more powerful and fuel-efficient than their predecessors and integrate new technology.

Whether accelerating hard on an uphill grade to pass a gravel hauler or cruising steadily along, both engines get the job done well. Both are smooth and quiet, yet responsive and emotive.

But having spent the majority of our time driving the diesel on highways and 2-lane roads that weaved through the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, the diesel is better for four reasons:

  • It clobbers the gas engine nearly 2-to-1 in available torque. Its 455 lb.-ft. (617 Nm) peak arrives early, at 1,600 rpm and holds on until 2,400 rpm.
  • The new gas engine is sophisticated, but the bottom-line output is not all that impressive on paper, at 302 hp. Engines of similar size in less-expensive vehicles made that much, or more, several years ago.
  • Combined fuel economy comes in at 22.5 mpg (10.4 L/100 km) for the diesel and 19.5 mpg (12 L/100 km) for the gas V-6. During a 181-mile (291-km) loop, we averaged 23.5 mpg (10 L/100 km) with the diesel.
  • If the ML truly is being used as Mercedes intended — for road trips and hauling stuff — the diesel will handle the load more capably.

With either engine, an excellent 7-speed automatic transmission sends power seamlessly to all four corners via 4Matic all-wheel drive.

Independent suspension offerings are diverse, although the basic setup carries over: double-wishbone geometry up front and 4-arm multi-link at the rear.

Upgrading to the optional Dynamic Handling Package costs $5,150 and includes AirMatic air suspension, which uses air bladders instead of coil springs, as well as air springs, to lower the vehicle at high speeds for better handling. Off-road, the suspension can be switched to raise the vehicle about 3 ins. (7.6 cm).

The package includes an adaptive damping system that can change compression and rebound damping every 0.05 seconds in adjusting to road conditions.

The air-suspension package also includes the new Active Curve System, which uses electronic sensors, an engine-driven hydraulic pump and electronically controlled valves to reduce body lean. Suffice to say the ML stayed firmly planted during our highway jaunts, but we did not experience the base suspension.

The M-Class also is the latest in a long list of newly launched vehicles to use electric power steering. The electro-mechanical rack-and-pinion unit integrates speed-dependent power assist and enables fuel savings by requiring electrical power only when the wheel is turned.

The steering feel is precise, firm and comfortable, whether on the highway or in parking maneuvers.

The interior of the M-Class reflects iterative rather than wholesale changes. There's more real-wood trim (eucalyptus or burl walnut), colors are richer and the 7-in. (17.7-cm) central display screen has been moved up in between two air vents.

The previous interior wasn't so bad, and Mercedes was right not to rip it up.

The M-Class might be priced competitively against the BMW X5, but the Cadillac SRX and Lexus RX remain better values. The cheapest model at the media event stickered at $56,825; the most expensive was $77,115.

Value-conscious buyers, even at this level, are paying attention. Through June, the RX and SRX, respectively, are the best-selling vehicles in Ward's Middle Luxury CUV segment.

No.3 is the X5, which received a facelift last year, followed closely by the M-Class. Not bad for a vehicle at the end of a 6-year cycle.

The BMW X5 offers an optional third row, but M-Class does not — yet. It's in the works, Mercedes says.

Admittedly, the level of excitement about a new M-Class is a rung or two below that generated by a new Mercedes SLK roadster or CLS 550 4-door coupe.

But the M-Class is the third best-selling vehicle in the Mercedes stable and deserves recognition.

After all, in the world of luxury CUVs and traffic jams, “Carmageddon” hasn't been all that bad.

'12 Mercedes ML350 4Matic

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 5-passenger CUV

Engine: 3.5L DOHC DI all-aluminum V-6

Power: 302 hp @ 6,500 rpm

Torque: 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) @ 3,500-5,250 rpm

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 114.8 ins. (292 cm)

Overall length: 189.1 ins. (480.3 cm)

Curb weight: 4,753 lbs. (2,156 kg)

Base price: $48,990

Fuel economy: 18/28 (13-8.3 L/100 km)

Competition: BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Lexus RX, Audi Q5, Lincoln MKX

PROS/CONS

[+]

  • Diesel's way to go
  • Wood trim makes impression
  • Exterior styling right on

[-]

  • Gas V-6 short on torque
  • German engineering expensive
  • Will carry-over styling boost sales?