Moving up a notch in style, efficiency, dynamic character and creature comforts, the redesigned 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class will be making its formal debut at Frankfurt in early September and go on sale here in the U.S. shortly thereafter. To be built at M-B's assembly facility in Vance, Alabama, the third generation of this mid-size sport utility vehicle reflects a well-conceived variation on the existing theme and matches its more refined appearance with an equal measure of the automaker's latest high-tech flourishes.

While its exterior shape-shifting is decidedly evolutionary in nature, the redrawn sheetmetal on the 2012 M-Class does boast a more refined muscularity. It starts up front with a bolder but tidier appearance dominated by a more prominent grille and headlight/LED running light arrangements. The rear of the M-Class effectively frames a large single-piece liftgate and integral spoiler with slimmer LED taillamps. While the signature swoop of its C-pillar and wraparound back glass remains pure M-Class, a closer look reveals a number of subtle line cues inspired by the E-Class and S-Class nicely set off by either 19-inch or 20-inch alloy wheels. And speaking of numbers, an intensive effort to address minute aero details has endowed the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class with a stellar drag coefficient of 0.32.

Inside, the cabin dimensions have grown only marginally, but the recasting process has endowed this classy five-passenger SUV with a more polished and higher-quality appearance complemented  by a variety of new trims -- including the addition of matte-finish wood, piano black and brushed aluminum along with the traditional burl walnut. Buyers also can choose between standard M-B Tex and optional full-leather seat coverings. Several control layouts have been tweaked to add more user friendliness while the dash and COMAND telematics system display more S-Class character and a redesigned center console provides even more utility than before. Audiophiles also will appreciate the upgraded AM/FM/DVD/MP3 sound system that now includes a 7.0-inch color display, HD Radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, and USB/AX inputs. As before, the new M-Class features a 60/40 split-folding rear seat that can be easily dropped to create a cavernous 71.0 cu ft cargo bay with a completely flat floor.

When it launches here, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class will be available in two models, both fitted with even-more-efficient direct-injected V6 engines and M-B's 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system. The ML350 4MATIC gets its motivation from the firm's high-tech BlueDIRECT 3.5-liter naturally aspirated gasoline six that makes 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque while the ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC is fitted with a 3.0-liter turbodiesel that makes 240 ponies but a stout 455 lb-ft of torque between 1,600-2,400 rpm. Backed by M-B's 7-G Tronic Plus seven-speed automatic transmission, the former earns 17/22 mpg EPA city/highway numbers while the latter is rated at 20/25 mpg. While yet to be officially confirmed, there's good reason to believe that sometime in 2012 they'll be joined by an M-Class armed with a 4.6-liter twin-turbo V8  and that an even-more-potent AMG variant and even-more-efficient hybrid M-Class are virtually certain and highly probable, respectively.

Mercedes engineers focused a great deal of their attention on enhancing the on-road comfort index of the new 2012 M-Class while ensuring it retained plenty of off-road capability. Underpinning this sophisticated AWD package is a new chassis that for the first time matches conventional steel springs with new Agility Control adaptive-damping shock absorbers and electromechanical speed-sensitive power steering. In addition to boasting a best-in-class 38.7-ft turning circle, the new M-Class teams its basic electronic stability/traction controls and anti-lock brakes with a driver selectable off-road transmission mode as well as Hill Start Assist, Downhill Speed Regulation and a Hold function.

As before, M-B will offer its sophisticated Airmatic suspension as an option as well as a Dynamic Handling Package that includes M-B's Active Curve System which uses electronically actuated anti-roll bars to optimize straight-line stability as well as limit body motions when you're traversing the any type of twisties. For serious boonie-bounders, the 2012 M-Class also has developed a dedicated On&Offroad Package. Due to arrive here early next year, it includes six different transmission modes plus a two-speed transfer case, skid plate and enhanced Airmatic functionality that provides 11.2-inches of ground clearance.

As always, active and passive safety is an inherent part of the formula on any Mercedes and the 2012 M-Class runs true to form. Beyond the standard items already mentioned, both gas and diesel versions come with M-B's  Attention Assist drowsiness-detection system, the impact-anticipating Pre-Safe system, Brake Assist, and nine airbags including front, front-side, rear-side, side-curtain and driver-knee units.

Other available features for the 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class include everything from Lane Keeping Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Active Park Assist and Night View Assist Plus to Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, an interactive hard-drive based navigation system that includes SIRIUS Satellite Radio with real-time traffic/weather updates, Sport/Premium Packages and a panoramic glass roof.

No word on pricing just yet, but it's likely to remain pretty close to current levels. If so, expect the 2012 ML350 4MATIC to start around $50,000 and the 2012 ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC to open closer to the $55K mark.

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