There’s an old saying that we only use a small portion of our brains at any one time and that if we could tap the potential, who knows what we would be capable of.
The same could be said for the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class. Most high-end sport utility vehicles rarely, if ever, make it very far off the beaten trail. Instead, they’re pampered with regular washings and kept snug as a bug in some palatial climate-controlled garage awaiting the next errand run to the galleria, school drop-off zone or evening outing. Their off-road systems are left entirely dormant ... forever.
Automakers that construct similar products know this, yet they still make ‘em as if they were about to head into some boulder-strewn nether-region where most people and their machinery fear to drive.
The latest M-Class that’s scheduled for a September unveiling proves the point and proves it well. Dimensionally, this Alabama-built luxo-ute and its car-like unibody (frameless) undercarriage is similar to that of the outgoing model. Physically, however, the restyled sheetmetal represents a quantum leap forward, especially the classier hood, fenders and grille plus the cleanly sculpted door and fender body panels that add some much needed definition.
The interior has been similarly addressed. On fully loaded models, the wood trim is tasteful, the stitched leather seat covers are inviting and the satin-nickel garnish is subtly restrained.
Initially there will be only two M-Class editions. The ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC comes with a 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel that resembles the previous engine in terms of displacement only. Its cylinder walls have been coated with a friction-fighter that eliminates the need for cast iron liners.
Mercedes-Benz claims that this and other improvements have led to a three-per-cent improvement in fuel economy.
The Turbo-diesel now generates 240 horsepower and 455 pound-feet of torque, compared to the outgoing 3.0’s 210 horses and 400 pound-feet of torque.
Also available is a 3.5-litre gasoline V6 that’s rated at 302 horsepower, a 34-horsepower up-tick from the previous 268 rating.
In this instance, the 3.5 benefits from direct-injection technology whereby fuel is sprayed at extremely high pressure directly into the combustion chambers, instead of into the intake manifold.
The turbo-diesel expected to achieve 11.0 l/100 km in the city and 7.6 on the highway (improved from 11.1/8.0). Meanwhile, the gasoline powerplant is estimated at 13.8/10.0 (previously 14.1/10.2).
Also assisting on the fuel-saving front for both engines is a new seven-speed automatic transmission with a more efficient — less power-sapping — torque converter.
The M-Class’s road manners have also been sharpened with “Agility Control” active damping that varies the ride and stability characteristics according to road conditions.
During normal driving, the ride is relatively soft, while for sudden or sharp turns the shock absorbers instantly firm up.
To supplement the permanently engaged 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system, buyers can select an optional “On & Offroad” package with six selectable transmission modes.
Luxury is one thing and features are another, but technology in terms of what’s under the skin as well as capability are what set Mercedes-Benz apart from the crowd.
In that respect, even the estimated base price of $63,000 seems fair. It’s just too bad that most buyers will never fully realize the capability of the M-Class. The mall, school drop-offs and rush-hour traffic are such rudimentary tasks for a machine that’s capable of intense adventure once the pavement disappears.