Top and center in the redesigned dash is a seven-inch display, flanked by air vents. Of course, it's the latest version of M-B's COMAND screen-based interface, which includes a rotary/button controller that's well placed, at the center console just ahead of the driver's right-hand armrest. We're still not wild about the interface, as the menu system begs for a simplified mode and, in our opinion, mixes higher-priority actions with ones that are rarely accessed. There are, however, a couple of programmable shortcut buttons to make it more comfortable.
And the M-Class cabin sure is comfortable, welcoming, and upscale. While the exterior is clearly a more aggressive yet graceful evolution, the interior goes in a somewhat new direction, adopting the gently sculpted lines and swooping curves of Mercedes' sedan instrument panels and complements the look with a 'power dome' center stack. And to an issue that's been criticized for years, the company has repositioned the turn-signal lever from the 8:00 position to the 10:00 position.
There's little to fault in the M-Class's driving position or comfort; though we would have liked a little more thigh support in its rather flat, wide lower cushions. Seat controls have now been moved up to the doors, as in M-B's other models. Rear seatbacks are also now adjustable for rake, and there's more than 36 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats. You'll have no problem fitting adults back there. Mercedes-Benz, curiously, is considering an available third row option for future model years.
Standout safety-tech wizardry
While its comfort, solidity, and security alone might be good reasons in and of themselves to choose the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class, what makes it special among rivals is its active and passive safety. Its available Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control is one of the most sophisticated and unobtrusive systems on any vehicle—capable of coming to a full stop with traffic and restarting, and potentially reducing fatigue. The latter system includes Pre-Safe, which will now give a warning beep, followed by partial braking, then 100-percent braking in the final 0.6 second before impact, to either lessen the impact or help avoid it altogether. Lane Keeping Assist (which gently vibrates the steering wheel) and Blind Spot Assist might also save you from close calls when you're distracted by the kids.
An Advanced Park Assist system, which helps steer the vehicle back into a parallel-parking space as the driver controls the accelerator and brakes, is also available.
Among the other standouts among available features is a heated or cooled cupholder that can heat up to 141 degrees F. It did a great job keeping our coffee hot while running the A/C. And there's a new iPad docking station—positioned between the front seats and in view for rear passengers—that will be available first in this product but will soon be available for all Mercedes-Benz models.
As before, the M-Class will be built at Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And if you still need more, hold on; next year, V-8 models are on the way—as well as a base 2WD ML350.
All said, our time with the new M-Class reminded us how much luxury SUVs and crossovers have reformed with the times. The new ML350 and ML350 Bluetec are now every bit up to the standards of on-road refinement of, say, the E-Class, while still fully up to a rutted ranch trail.
Only with the desirable, well-rounded luxury good that Mercedes-Benz has created here, it's a lot more than that.