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Even an esteemed automaker like Mercedes Benz understands that changes occasionally need to occur. Stand still for too long and the competition may not only catch up, it may pass up as well.

Significant changes hadn’t taken place in a while with the Mercedes M-class sport utility vehicle, so it’s no huge surprise that a major redesign arrived this year. The 2012 M-class features some solid improvements, including fuel efficiency, performance, interior modifications, and a few exterior ones as well.

2012 Mercedes M-class SUV

  • Performance: 3.5-liter, V6, 302 horsepower (base model)
  • Mileage estimate: 15-27 mpg 
  • Price: $48,990 to $94,990
  • Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles; drivetrain 4 years/50,000 miles; corrosion 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assistance miles/years unlimited

However, one thing didn’t change – the M-class is still very recognizable in appearance, and that’s a good thing.

Not all M-class models are equal. If one is looking for diversity, it can be found within these four trim levels, which includes a diesel model. There is no hybrid model this year. What all M-class models share are the comfortable seating, ample performance, and are well constructed SUVs that are high quality in nature.

They can also be high in price as well. The top-of-the-line ML63 AMG goes for a staggering $94,990. That’s quite a jump from the modest ML350 that has a reasonable sticker price of $48,990.

Among the exterior changes are the return of the classic Mercedes grille and the taillights are now wider. One other characteristic the M-class models share is no third-row seating, which is a negative because many people expect that offering from a midsize luxury SUV.

The performance and the gas mileage vary quite a bit with each model. Here is a breakdown.

  • ML350: 3.5-liter, V6 that produces 302 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque.
           This model delivers more power than before and also has better gas mileage (17-22 mpg).
  • ML350 Bluetec turbodiesel: 3.0-liter, turbodiesel V6, that delivers 240 horsepower and an ample 455 pound-feet of torque. Uses 50-state-legal clean-diesel technology. Gas mileage is 20-27 mpg.
  • ML550: 4.7-liter, twin-turbo V8 with 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Goes 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds. Gas mileage is 15-20 mpg.
  • ML63 AMG: 5.5-liter, twin-turbo V8 that produces 550 horsepower and 560 pound-feet of torque. This SUV is awful quick – 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Gas mileage is 15-25 mpg.

The M-class has four impressive models. However, that doesn’t mean Mercedes owns the midsize luxury SUV division. One of its main rivals is the attractive and superb handling BMW X5. Both the Lexus RX and Acura MDX are also great selections with plenty of upside that have a lower sticker price than the M-class. The Porsche Cayenne is another strong competitor.

Like many luxury vehicles, the M-class has rich leather interior with wood accents, provides tremendous comfort and room to both front and back seat occupants, and offers top-of-the-line technology that will please car-buyers who love their gadgetry.

The M-class handling doesn’t quite match its abundant performance. But there’s no lack of confidence when behind the wheel, thanks to the superior braking power. These SUVs drive smooth and quiet, and the performance combines to make for a fun ride.

Overall, the M-class delivers in many areas and does nothing to detract from the Mercedes name. It possesses the requisite refinement, performance and overall class that definitely make it worthy of the luxury class.