'Last Best" describes both Montana and the latest Mercedes ML.
Let's begin with Montana, the western state that describes itself as "The Last Best Place." It is just as beautiful as neighbouring southwestern Alberta so in the U.S context "Last Best Place" stands up. As for the Merc, this is the third generation of the brand's luxury sport-ute and it's definitely the "Last Best" of the bunch.
Montana is part of the story because that's where this made-in-America vehicle was given its international media launch. This is not a German-built vehicle – Europeans have little use for gigantic V-8 sport-utes – the ML is produced in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama.
The first generation out of that factory was a body-on-frame brute with appalling quality issues. The second generation came along in 2005 after Mercedes poured more than half a billion dollars into fixing its only American factory. Gen Two went unibody (i.e. built like a car, not a truck) and was a huge improvement over the original and sold extremely well. Now arriving is Gen Three and it's definitely Last Best.
You don't notice a huge difference in exterior appearance – it's only when you open the door that you see what the company has done. The interior is as good as or better than anything Merc builds into its most expensive passenger cars.
It's refined, comfortable and silent. Cruising the interstate is an almost soundless experience and the cruising down there is fast. Back in the late 1990s you could drive as fast as you liked on Montana's major highways – autobahn style – as long as you were "reasonable and prudent." Those days are gone unfortunately, but the speed limit today is a reasonable and prudent 75 mph (120 km/h).
Driving the sweeping curves over hill and dale at this speed is no problem at all. The ride is certainly on the cushy side, but body roll is barely noticeable. It's not the sportiest sport-ute but it is the most noiseless in both gas and diesel versions.
The 2012 MLs in Canada will have a new, direct-injection, 3.5-litre, gas V-6 producing 302 horsepower (an increase of 34) or a BlueTec, 3.0-litre V-6 turbo-diesel making 240 horsepower (an increase of 30). Definitely take the diesel; the price bump over the gas is only 1,500 bucks. Eight-cylinder MLs will arrive next year, but who needs them?
Power goes through a seven-speed transmission that's a beauty. There's a very expensive Dynamic Handling package available for more than five grand that includes the Active Curve System (ACS), which decouples the anti-roll bars both off-road and during high-speed highway runs. Like the V-8s – who needs it? I drove the gas version over a long and torturous horse trail and it handled everything with ease.
I often complain that the Europeans get the best stuff and there's no exception in the Tuscaloosa-built ML. In Europe, it will be offered with a new four-cylinder turbo-diesel. This is a 2.2-litre engine producing 201 hp while delivering 6 litres/100 km fuel economy on the highway. That's economy like a compact car, not a big SUV, but of course that engine won't be available in North America – and I have no idea why.
Here's another thing they fixed in the latest ML – the location of the cruise control lever. For some reason Mercedes insisted stubbornly on putting the thing exactly where the turn signal lever is in every other car in the known universe. How many times have I got in a Merc and tried to signal a turn and the damned cruise control kicked in instead. Now, finally, they've switched the cruise and turn signal lever positions. Common sense at long last.
They have also done a better job of the various controls on the centre stack. It's pretty simple to work your way around everything from the optional navigation system to the phone, climate and media functions.
Mercedes got the jump on the competition when it was first to market with a non-domestic luxury sport-ute back in the day. Maybe it rushed the thing to the market too fast because it sure was crude and it sure had problems. It must have been the right idea though, because everybody copied it and you have a raft of competitors today.
But Merc learned its lessons well and voila – the "Last Best." But if it's too expensive for you to experience the "Last Best" that way, then simply take a little camping trip to Montana instead.
2012 Mercedes-Benz ML
ML 350 4MATIC, powered by a 302-hp, 3.5-litre gas V-6, starts at $57,900 before taxes, freight and delivery charges.
The ML 350 BlueTec 4MATIC, powered by a 240-hp, 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V-6, starts at $59,400 before taxes, freight and delivery charges.
Competitors: BMW X5, Audi Q7, Acura MDX, Lexus RX350, Infiniti FX, Land Rover LR4, Volvo XC90, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, Cadillac SR, and of course the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which started the ball rolling.