2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class: Comprehensive Technical Guide

Jul 12, 2011

The 2012 M-Class represents the third generation of a highly successful Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle that began the industry trend toward SUVs with a more car-like ride. The new-generation M-Class is poised to reaffirm its leadership of the SUV market when it’s launched in the U.S. in the fall of 2011. Manufactured in the U.S., the new M-Class will make its market debut in Europe and other global markets at the end of the year.

While the dramatically styled 2012 M-Class sits about 3/4-inch lower than the previous model, the new SUV is nearly an inch longer and a half inch wider. With the same wheelbase, its track width is more than a half-inch wider in front and an inch wider at the rear.

As a result, there’s more room for passengers and cargo within an overall shape that’s sleeker and more aerodynamic than its predecessor. In addition to increased interior room, this means even better fuel mileage and a quieter interior.

Useful Technology Abounds

Useful new technology abounds in the M-Class including standard ATTENTION ASSIST, which can actually detect drowsiness and warn the driver to take a break, and PRE-SAFE, a Mercedes-Benz first that senses an impending accident and takes protective measures even before impact. Optional highlights include active versions of Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist. For convenience, even heated & cooled cupholders are optionally available.

Beneath its aerodynamic exterior is a unibody platform and sophisticated independent suspension that both deliver impressive on-road performance and comfort. A brand-new direct-injection V6 engine gets better gas mileage and develops more power, while the optional DISTRONIC PLUS with PRE-SAFE® brake uses radar sensors to maintain a safe distance behind the car ahead, take the work out of stop­and-go traffic and actually apply the brakes in an emergency if the driver doesn’t respond quickly enough.


When the original 1998 Mercedes-Benz M-Class entered the fast-growing and highly competitive sport utility vehicle market of the 1990s, the all-new SUV represented new thinking and a new attitude as well as a new design and production process. Unusual for the time, the M-Class was designed from the ground up as an SUV rather than being based on an existing truck platform.

Clean Sheet of Paper Design

Mercedes-Benz had extensive experience building four-wheel-drive vehicles such as the Gelandewagen and Unimog for off-road use. However, rather than re-designing or re-badging an existing vehicle, the M-Class project began with a “clean sheet of paper.” As a result, the first-generation M-Class set new standards by combining the safety, quality, performance and comfort of a Mercedes-Benz with the versatility of a sport utility and exceptional off-road capability. Most important, it combined off-road prowess with the refinement and security of a Mercedes-Benz passenger car.

Research into the project indicated that owners of truck-derived sport utility vehicles were pleased with the ruggedness and cargo capacity that their vehicles offered, but they also wanted a more comfortable ride, better fuel economy, greater passenger safety and improved reliability. Unique at the time in the retail SUV market, M-Class featured front and rear independent double-wishbone suspension for a Mercedes-Benz ride.

New Four-Wheel Drive

From a technical standpoint, the original M-Class featured an entirely new four-wheel-drive system, combining full-time drive to all four wheels with four-wheel traction control and a low range. Also unique at the time, this design eliminated the need for differential locks, required no driver intervention and provided far more responsive handling and steering under all driving conditions. The 2012 M-Class uses a refined version of this groundbreaking 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, and many other Mercedes-Benz models are available with a version of the system that made its debut in the M-Class.

U.S. Assembly Plant

While a handful of Mercedes cars were manufactured in the United States from 1905-1907 under license by the Steinway Piano Company, the M-Class production site in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was the first real passenger vehicle production facility in the United States for Mercedes-Benz. During the eight-year life cycle of the first-generation vehicle, more than 570,000 M-Class SUVs were produced at the plant.

In the past decade, the plant underwent a $600 million expansion that doubled its production to 160,000 vehicles a year, its workforce to 4,000, and its size to about three million square feet. Currently, the plant includes two assembly shops, two paint shops and an expanded body shop.

The SUV Market

Although the sport utility vehicle can trace its roots back to military vehicles of the 1940s, it was the introduction of truck-based four-door SUVs in the early 1980s that ignited the immense popularity of these vehicles across diverse demographic and psychographic lines. Over the past decades, the SUV segment has been one of the most rapidly growing parts of the overall automobile market in the United States.

In particular, the premium segment, defined as SUVs priced more than $35,000, has experienced considerable growth. Within this sub-segment are luxury versions of lower-priced SUVs, as well as specific luxury-brand SUVs, some of which are modified and rebadged versions of other vehicles.

While rising oil prices have made fuel economy a more important purchase consideration, the continued popularity of SUVs is due to many factors, including versatility for passengers and cargo, four-wheel drive capability for inclement weather driving, and an outward image that conveys an active, outdoors-oriented lifestyle. This image remains an important buying factor, and is likely to continue playing a major role in purchase decisions of these vehicles.

The original M-Class started the trend toward premium SUVs with a more car-like ride that swept across the entire auto industry, and the latest M-Class reaffirms its leadership of this fast-growing market segment.

Exterior Design

With its large wheel openings and the two-box profile of its nose and cabin, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class is instantly recognizable as a sport utility vehicle. This eye-catching interpretation of a modern SUV makes a strong presence that projects trend-setting design and competence.

A Bold Face

The nose of the 2012 M-Class is dominated by a bold front grille that holds the familiar three-pointed star logo in the center, while a chrome skid plate curves from the front bumper up toward the grille. Bracketing the front grille, newly designed headlights are flush-mounted in the fenders. New LED daytime running lights are recessed in the front bumper.

Optional bi-xenon headlights with active curve illumination combined with corner-illuminating lights provide enhanced visibility. These swiveling headlights follow the steering input of the driver to pivot when the car enters a bend, improving road illumination by up to 90 percent over fixed lights in turns.

When the driver activates the turn signal or turns the steering wheel at low speeds, corner illuminating lights illuminate areas of the road that would remain dark with conventional lighting systems – areas that could include a pedestrian or cyclist.

Sweeping Side Proportions

Its bold proportions are defined by a relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs. The lines along the sides appear stretched, including a high belt line accented with stainless-steel trim, and its roof line slopes down toward the rear, emphasizing the sportiness of the new M-Class. Striking chrome luggage rails run the length of the roof. Reminiscent of previous M-Class models, an angled C-pillar distinguishes the SUV from its competitors.

Flowing, Poured Rear Contours

The rear side windows transition to the rear glass without a visible roof pillar, and a rear lip spoiler emphasizes the sloping roof line. Wrap-around two-piece taillights feature fiber optics and LEDs. An integrated rear bumper unifies the sturdy SUV look of the new M-Class and includes a stainless-steel rear sill protector.

Interior Design

The dynamic interior design of the new M-Class underscores the spacious width of its new cabin and fosters a sense of well-being with elegant high-quality materials and attention to detail. Interior trim includes wood and aluminum elements with controls in a silver shadow finish. Soothing ambient lighting, which can be switched between 3 different colors, is available as part of the optional Premium 2 package.

A Contemporary Cockpit

A sporty, four-spoke steering wheel frames a hooded twin-gauge instrument cluster. The left gauge houses the analog speedometer and fuel gauge, while a tachometer and coolant temperature gauge are on the right. The twin gauges are bridged by a 4.5-inch screen that can display a wide range of useful information, including a trip computer and GPS navigation directions.

The steering wheel holds paddles for shifting the transmission manually and multifunction buttons for scrolling through menus on the driver’s display. The buttons can also adjust the audio volume, make and take phone calls, or activate the voice control system. Newly-designed stalks on the steering column for turn signals, highbeams, wipers, cruise control and transmission mode make the new SUV easier than ever to drive.

COMAND and Control

Perched at the top center of the dashboard in order to minimize driver distraction, a seven-inch COMAND display is bordered by large swiveling air vents. The new head unit comes with a ten-gigabyte music storage hard drive, SD card slot, and an MP3 compatible CD /DVD player as well as a Bluetooth interface for wireless audio streaming and hands-free phone operation, HD/AM/weatherband radio, an FM phase-diversity twin tuner and a USB port hidden in the storage compartment of the center console.

An optional hard-drive-based GPS navigation system offers many new features, including a 3D display, a compass overlay, dynamic route guidance, the ability to show alternate routes plus the functionality to record routes while driving. Also optional, a Sirius-XM feature can provide real-time traffic and weather information on the navigation map.

Two Audio Systems

The standard 100-watt audio system in the new M-Class includes eight speakers arranged in pairs; each of the four doors holds a tweeter and mid-range speaker. An optional 830-watt harman/kardon digital surround sound system comes with 14 speakers that include a sub-woofer and two more mid­range speakers in the luggage compartment, a center fill mid-range speaker in the dash and separate woofers in the doors.

Antennas Abound

An AM antenna is embedded in the roof spoiler, and two phase-diversity antennas for the FM radio are in the rear window and roof spoiler (the audio system automatically chooses the antenna with the strongest reception). An antenna for GPS navigation is mounted on the roof, and the standard mbrace emergency call system antenna is located behind the luggage compartment paneling.

Automatic Climate Control

Below the COMAND display are twin dial controls for the dual-zone climate control system. To maximize fuel mileage, the system is designed to power down the AC compressor when cooling or dehumidifying isn’t needed. A cabin fresh air filter hidden below the glove box is nearly double the size of the previous model.

Center Console

Similar to a computer mouse, a central controller for the COMAND system is mounted on the center console. Two “Favorite” shortkeys flank the controller, allowing quick access to frequently-used functions. With the electronic shift lever for the transmission mounted on the steering column, there’s also ample room on the center console for two large cupholders, which can be optionally heated or cooled.

A Fully Equipped SUV

All 2012 M-Class sport utilities feature a power glass sunroof with express open and close, and a double-sized power Panorama sunroof is optionally available. Eight-way power heated front seats, power windows with express up and down, power liftgate, cruise control, rain sensing wipers and an integrated garage door opener are also standard equipment.

A standard SmartKey remote unit does away with conventional mechanical ignition locks, in favor of a fully electronic key that’s integrated into the remote locking unit. An optional KEYLESS-GO system allows drivers to unlock and start their new M-Class with the SmartKey key still in a pocket or purse. Low-power radio transceivers in the doors sense the presence of the KEYLESS-GO remote, and gently pulling one of the door handles unlocks the car. Without a key of any sort in the ignition slot (the slot’s still there, in case you prefer), the engine burbles to life whenever the brake pedal is depressed and a button on the dashboard is pushed.

Some of the other useful M-Class options include heated & cooled cup holders, heated steering wheel, and a rearview camera that displays the area behind the SUV whenever it’s in reverse gear. Optional Parktronic uses a series of ultra-sound sensors in the front and rear bumpers to detect obstacles in the system’s field of view. The system provides audible warnings and displays the proximity of obstacles using incremental bar displays – one on the center dashboard for the front and another for the rear that’s visible in the rear-view mirror.

The new electric steering assist in the 2012 M-Class works together with Parktronic to provide Advanced Parking Assist, which makes parallel parking a stress-free cinch. Below about 20 mph, a “P” icon appears in the dash to show that an electronic parallel parking space search is active. Whenever an adequate-size parking space is found, an arrow appears next to the “P” icon. When reverse is engaged and the driver confirms Advance Parking Assist is desired, the system initiates automatic steering as the driver controls acceleration, shifting and braking at speeds below 7 mph.  The system allows two forward corrections, after which the wheels are straightened.

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