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Saab 9-4X Vs. Mercedes-Benz ML350

July 13, 2011 in News

To celebrate the launch of the new 9-4X, I’m starting a series that compares it to its midsize competition. Today Mercedes-Benz released the pricing and options details of its new 2012 ML350, and so I thought I’d kick this comparison off with the freshest competitor possible. For most readers here, this information is nothing new, but hopefully to those who link here doing some cross shopping will see the light.

Amazingly most coverage and headlines for the ML350 price list has been “Mercedes adds standard equipment but holds prices down.” While we’re a Saab blog focused at Saab drivers and consumers, I believe that anyone who reads this will come away with the same conclusion– that a 3-pointed star doesn’t add any more value to a CUV than Saab can deliver.

Size

The 9-4X and ML350 are within a few inches of each other in nearly every exterior dimension. The Saab rides a hair lower which gives it a more sporting appearance, and considering the most offroading these CUVs will typically do is driving across gravel or up a 6″ curb to park on grass, they both seem more than adequate. The ML has room for a little more cargo with the seats folded flat, but the Saab provides more rear legroom.

Engines, Powertrain, and Fuel Economy

The 9-4X comes in three forms, the base model, the premium model (both with standard FWD and for an extra $2,500 sticker XWD) and the XWD Aero model. The former two use a 3.0L V6 that produces 265 Hp and 265 lb-ft of torque (17/23 mpg), while the latter with its turbo pumps out 300HP and 300 lb-ft of torque (15/22 mpg). If that’s not enough for you a future Hirsch package should be on the way that will give you around an additional 30HP and ftlbs of torque, the similar upgrade which is available in the  new 9-5 which shares its engine in Aero guise with the 9-4X retails for $1,000– certainly a worthwhile upgrade. The XWD system is one of the most advanced on the planet, employing a Haldex eLSD which can distribute torque from wheel to wheel on the rear axle to improve handling and traction, something companies like Porsche and even Bugatti are adapting for their own cars, years after Saab worked with Haldex to introduce it to the market.

The Mercedes comes with a 3.5L V6 gas (petrol for you Europeans) engine that pumps out 302hp and 273 lb-ft of torque (17/22 mpg), making it a little less torquey than the Saab Aero engine. However it can also be had in diesel form, with a 3.0L putting out 240 HP and a huge 455 lb-ft of torque (18/25 mpg), something you can’t get in the Saab. In the US at least, considering the higher price of diesel, the cost of maintenance on the urea-injection diesel system Mercedes uses called Blue-Tec, and the initial price premium, I calculated that it would take 191 months to recoup the initial investment in the diesel model. In other words, there really isn’t a compelling reason to get the diesel if you live in the US– perhaps other countries yes, but definitely not the country where consumers gobble up the most CUVs. Both models come standard with Mercedes-Benz 4Matic AWD with 4-ETS, which instead of employing an advanced electronic limited slip differential like the Haldex system on the Saab, relies primarily on braking force to control wheelspin. Mercedes-Benz marketing division must have gotten a hold of the engineers and decided to give names to nearly every system in the car that normally goes unnoticed– what Saab calls Drivesense, Mercedes calls Airmatic, and they go a step further with their Active Curve System (ACS), something that Saab achieves in a less intrusive way with their eLSD. One party trick the Mercedes has available is an offroad package which allows the driver to select the surface they’re driving on (similar to what Jeep and Land Rover do). I’m guessing 5% of buyers will know what to do with that button.

Interior, Options, and Price


I’m grouping these together because the interior is where you’re going to notice most of the options that normally ring up an extra few thousand dollars onto the final bill of sale. The base model Saab at $34,205 is nicely equipped with man made leather seating surfaces and wood, it looks and feels a good $10,000 more expensive. Even the base model comes with dual zone climate control with cooled glovebox, heated mirrors, keyless start/stop, a full slate of airbags, U-Rail cargo management, CD-Player with USB/Aux input and Bluetooth. But even I’ll admit that it’s lacking a decent LCD screen in the dash. However some people, especially older drivers who don’t want or need the extra fancy small TV-sized screen will appreciate having a streamlined radio with easy to navigate functions. For those looking for a step up, the available Power Package includes LED lipped Xenon headlamps, auto dimming/folding mirrors, power lift gate and pedals, rear view camera and heated seats which brings the sticker to $35,590. If you want to get a panoramic sunroof, that’s available to you on all models for an additional $1,000.

Step into the Premium model starting at $38,075 and you get several standard features added to the list- upgraded wheels, ventilated seats for those hot summer days, auto air recirculation sensor, rain sensing wipers, remote start and keyless passive entry (those fancy door handles you touch and they open without needing the key), universal garage door opener, power passenger seat, and an Upgraded Bose Audio System. If a Navigation system is crucial to you, you get the full HD based system with all the aforementioned options for $43,270 ($46,265 with XWD). In the Aero, for only an extra $2,000 you not only get all those options, but you get a more powerful engine and Saab’s magnetic adjustable suspension system, DriveSense, which changes the ride characteristics depending on your driving style. It was universally applauded by auto journalists who tested the 9-4X, and gives the car an even more planted onroad feel. And despite the near $50K sticker price, 9-4X Aeros are selling in my area (NYC metro) for around $45-46K. If you really want to treat your rear passengers to a good roadtrip experience, the rear seat entertainment package is available for an additional $1,845. The bottom line: the standard features that Saab gives their customers are usually options on other premium European cars, but in the 9-4X you get that value without having to cough up what amounts to nearly an entire semester at an ivy league college. Saab’s value is hard to even come close to matching.

Case in point, while the Mercedes-Benz ML350 does come with some very nice standard equipment, they hold back just enough to get you to shell out the big bucks for options that Saab gives you free. The Premium Package which gives you a rearview camera, double sun visors, a power outlet, and Navigation costs an additional $3,600. If you want the same stereo that the 9-4X Aero comes standard with, heated/cooled cupholders and keyless go (which even the base model 9-4X comes standard with), bring an extra $1,850 to the party for the Premium II package. Now it gets fun– for an extra $5,450, Mercedes will give you an adaptive suspension and 20″ wheels, wait a minute, that’s standard on the 9-4X Aero too. Hmm, let’s dig deeper. If you want your car to look like it’s of this century and check the option for Xenon headlights, Mercedes will charge you another $1,290. You guessed it, that’s standard on the Saab Aero. Rounding out the options that Mercedes charges you for that Saab won’t on the Aero are the rear-seat heaters at $620, Parktronic for $970, and 3-Zone climate control, which pricing isn’t even available for, so I’ll be generous and guess they’ll only charge $500 for that. Add up all those options and you have a choice between the $48,835 9-4X Aero or the $64,145 ML350. That’s a savings of over $15 grand– with that money you could buy yourself a nice gently used 9-3 Convertible and laugh all the way home.

Conclusion

Having not driven the new ML350 I can’t say whether it feels better behind the wheel than a 9-4X. I’m sure they’ve made strides in fuel economy and handling with their optional Active Curve System. What I can tell you is that I much prefer the driver hugging layout of the Saab’s cockpit and the attention Saab engineers give to the driver to help him or her stay focused on the road. The Mercedes looks and feels more like a living room to me, not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that I don’t imagine it would be too fun driving my house around. I can also tell you that the 9-4X’s driving characteristics have been applauded by every auto journalist who has driven it, it just feels bank-vault solid, a phrase traditionally associated with Mercedes-Benz.

I strongly believe that anyone with half a brain should instantly be able to see the value proposition in the Saab. It achieves the same gas mileage, performance, and perhaps even superior winter driving characteristics with its Swedish based Haldex XWD system. In Aero form it comes with a ton more standard features than the Mercedes, and even in Base form it gives customers premium options like keyless go. Is a 3 pointed star on the grill of your car worth $15K to you?

The only question buyers are left asking is whether or not Saab will be around long enough for them to have confidence that their dealer will be around to service their car in years to come. To that I can honestly say that Saab has backup plan after backup plan for continued operations to ensure that they’ll be just as happy in their 9-4X today as they will years in the future. If you follow this website regularly, you’ll understand why our readers aren’t surprised when Saab pulls through adverse news headlines and continues on. Many news reports claim that Saab hasn’t produced a car since April– the fact that 9-4Xs are rolling off the line, albeit in North America, is proof that the company is still marching forward. Some say Saab is the company with 9 lives, we here know that they never died in the first place.

 

41 responses to Saab 9-4X Vs. Mercedes-Benz ML350

  1. Great article, Jeff!

  2. I don’t know why they call this Mercedes a new one, it is basically the same as in 2006. It’s just a face-lift.
    One should look at new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, which are new and based on Mercedes ML.

  3. The ML350 looks so outdated in its design compared to the 9-4X :)

    Too much wood (in both cars) for my liking, can’t understand why wood makes a car more premium, it doesn’t do it for me.

    • +1
      The Saab has just some “wood”, but still to much.
      The Saab is very nice both inside and outside, the Mercedes looks ugly both inside and outside :)
      I think customers will use their eyes. :)

      • Hey go easy on the wood thing, I like frikin wood. (real wood not brown plastic).
        There are some folks out there who love saabs who want those options-they are normally old duffers who smoke a pipe and wear tweed and brogues-but let decent would it be an option, we don’t all want pretend aluminium and fake carbon fibre.

        Anyway fake old is as bad as fake modern.

    • +1
      +1 :)
      Most people go after the brand…as we do also. It’s hard to change a mercedes guy to another brand.

    • The wood can also be modern (new Jaguar XJ, Volvos), classic (Bentleys or RRs) or just old and outdated (almost all others) or fake.
      So, Saab should have the first type ;-)

    • JH said on July 13, 2011

      Dark fake wood does feel outdated and misplaced in a new Saab, but genuine light wood (birch for example) would be very nice in my opinion. :)

      • It might be. But only if used in regular, solid (but thin off-course) pieces – not to “integrated” in the 3D plastic… The combination of air-bags and safety-belts should give possibilities to again use harder surfaces on the dashboard… Maybe combinations of aluminium and birch… (??)

          • Birch would be very nice, and feel authentically Swedish. Actually, the wood interior pieces on the new Volvo s80 as part of the floating console look nice, too. The wood in the Mercedes definitely looks like something my grandfather would have liked. Of course, he’d be 106 this year.

  4. Nice and fair, well done Jeff.

  5. I believe eLSD is specific to Saab. Other brands may get XWD, but eLSD is only found in certain GM models.

  6. JH said on July 13, 2011

    Very good article, Jeff! The Saab 9-4X is a very nice car and it seems like it is competitively priced too. :)

  7. To be honest; The MB gives me qualm, with its clumsy heaviness and the very vulgar attempt to say; “Here I come and I have lots of money”. This is underlined by the messy, wooden interior (German Bier-stube) . Compared to that the Saab looks progressive, “high-tech”/advanced, sharp and elegant (although I am no fan of SUVs).
    But the pictures also shows that Saab – in my opinion – should be to proud to have those dark, false – very un-Scandinavian- “wood” in their interiors. After all it has nothing to do in a car!

  8. @Jeff, do you know if a Diesel engine is planned for the 9-4X ?

    • Some say yes, some say no.

      But the official response is “no, but we’re looking into it now that we’re independent.”

  9. Good article, Jeff.

    One thing I haven’t seen anything about is the off-road ability of the 9-4x. I’d be interested to see how it does in a rural setting (not ploughing fields, but where a ‘normal’ car cannot cope).

  10. Couple comments:
    Active Curve system on Mercedes uses active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles, which it controls automatically as a function of the lateral acceleration, road speed and the ADS (active damping system) Comfort/Sport switch setting. It is totally different system than eLSD.
    Airmatic is proper air suspension and it has included ADS, witch is same kind of system than Saab’s DriveSense. But air suspension is also capable to increase the ground clearance over 5 inches.

    Off-road package also includes two differential locks(in the middle and rear), low gear ratios and 6 different programs to different surfaces.

    911 Turbo S has torque vectoring system with a mechanical differential lock on the rear axle.

    • Is it worth 15K extra, though?

    • The ACS is definitely something extra for Mercedes that helps it to feel more composed, and that alone is a reason why I think this model is getting such a big redesign. It’s cool technology, but it’s “Active” meaning it’s there to correct some sort of imbalance in the car’s size and design. While the Saab doesn’t have it, the Swedish/American team led by Peter Dorrich has by all journalistic accounts done amazing things with the Saab’s chassis to keep it balanced, composed, and even fun in the twisties. I’ll look for specific lines about handling, but I can vouch– the 9-4X Aero stays planted pretty well in a corner.

      Somehow I don’t think either of these SUVs were designed to do Autobahn cruising as their primary duty, and yet I think both would do quite well at it. As Jake said, is it worth an extra $15,000 to you to have the extra stabilizer bars? Methinks Hirsch might have some performance mods in the future to play around with the 9-4X suspension, but even if they don’t it still features a very composed ride.

  11. Very good article!!

    From my perspective the Mercedes has been in the market for quite a while and probably this will not attract possible North American buyers that are looking for something “different”. So the 9-4X should be considered as a strong option.

    Latest US press reviews of the vehicle and the recent Top Safety Pick designation by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety might be decisive to possible buyers that aren’t too much worried about SAAB’s current situation. A situation that the brand will surely overcome.

    Right now I’m not aware if there’s a strong marketing campaign of the 9-4X in North America, as I live in Europe, but there’s no question that is needed.

    Just hoping for good July/ August US sales figures.

  12. Jeff,
    as a Saab enthusiast I am always positive on good arguments for the brand and their produccts. I this case, however, I am not really buying it. The 9-4 is a small car compared to the current ML, and the new ML model will be even more spacious. I sat in the 9-4 front and back in London recently and I have evaluated its trunk. The latter is really small compared to the ML’s. It is considerably smaller than the 9-5 SC’s, and this again is much smaller than the ML trunk which is 670 liters with the seats up. Although the lenghts of the two vehicles may be comparable, the inner space is not. I would rather compare the 9-4 with the Merc GLK, the BMW X 3 or the Audi Q 5, to be fair.

    • I don’t disagree that the 9-4X feels like a tighter, smaller car inside. That’s why my mom really liked the feel behind the wheel, she felt like she understood the dimensions of the car better behind the wheel than the ML or Lexus RX. Here’s the breakdown of interior dimensions for you TU 900:

      Cargo Volume to seat 2 (back seats up)
      ML350: 29.4 cubic feet
      9-4X: 29.2 cubic feet

      Cargo Volume to seat 1 (back seats folded)
      ML350: 72.4 cubic feet
      9-4X: 61.2 cubic feet

      So right there, definitely with the seats folded flat there’s not as much cargo space but with them up it’s the same.

      Interior Dimensions

      Saab 9-4X Mercedes-Benz ML350 (sadly the formatting won’t work properly in comments)

      Front Shoulder Room 58.3 58.4
      Second Shoulder Room 56.9 58.3
      Front Head Room 39.9 39.9
      Second Head Room 38.8 39.8
      Front Leg Room 41.2 42.2
      Second Leg Room 36.4 40.0

      As you can see they’re all very close in nearly every dimension. From the driver’s perspective, the Saab may seem smaller with it’s more curved Aero inspired detailing, and certainly when measurements are taken from curved interior volumes vs. the flat ones seen in the Mercedes it will come out larger, but really the 9-4X is much more in the midsize group than the much shorter GLK, Q5 territory. Perhaps we’ll see a 9-3X competing at the small end of that group soon? ;)

      • Jeff,
        thank you for the detailed information. It may well be that “look and feel” differ even if data is comparable. However, the trunk feels so much smaller in the 9-4!
        I have looked up the data published in Europe and it is confusing that the US cubic feet measure is on par while in liters there is a huge difference:
        Cargo Volume to seat 2 (back seats up)
        ML350: 670 liters
        9-4X: 483 liters
        I have to add that I drive a 2009 Dame Edna Aero SC and the trunk in my view is a little bigger than the 9-4X’s. However, Saab published that the SC’s trunk is 419 liters only. To my knowledge,cargo space is measured between the trunk’s floor and the bottom line of the rear window. May be this is different in the US?
        On a general issue: No chance for the 9-4 in Germany without a diesel, I am sorry. It is a pitty that Saab is unable to offer it with the 190 hp diesel from the new 9-5. If this were the case the 9-4 would certainly sell well.
        But there is another important thing and that’s pricing: It is very good that you will get a 9-4 Aero with all the options for just 48 K US.
        Given an exchange rate of 1.40 for the Euro, the US price equals less than 35 K Euros. Unfortunately, this is not the pricing strategy of Saab. The price in Germany (for this fully optionised Aero) will be at least 60 K Euros, and this difference has nothing to do with taxes like in Denmark or Norway but only with pricing strategy. It is hard to accept paying 25 K Euros more than in the US.
        If I would get it for 35 K I’d buy one tomorrow.
        Even if the trunk is not too big…

        • TU 900,
          a 9-4x Aero with all you can put on top will cost you 57.700 € in Germany.

          Which is the base price of a Merc ML 350 + metallic paint also in Germany, and the list of things the Saab has and the Merc don’t is looooooong.

          Don’t compare US prices with European prices, it makes no sense.

          • If one is looking at Euro v. American prices, just wait until you see American v. Australian. Bear in mind the Australian dollar now has parity, or exceeds the US, and it hurts even more. I am finding it hard to convert trim levels and prices, but a dealer near me has two 95s at around A$63000 or A$68000 for Vector models, one diesel, one petrol, delivery kms only. The billing with them notes that they are 20% and 25% off respectively, so looking at a lot higher elsewhere. This dealer is just trying to move all their Saabs as they have a 93xwd that I would have leapt at if it was just a bit bigger. So, around A$80000 for a 95 will probably explain why sales will remain sluggish here. On the flip side, knowing the mark-up they make will lend power to any negotiations if I look to buy a 94x or 95sc in the future.

  13. Obviously an article for the North American market and fair mention is made of diesel in that context.

    Western Europe is, for the moment, a diesel driving continent where this type of vehicle is concerned, with a few glancing in the direction of hybrids. Rising petrol prices in Australia are slowly generating the same approach there. The lack of a diesel 94x will keep people looking in the direction of Mercedes, BMW, Audi, VW as well as Japanese offerings.

    I cannot speak for China. I suppose if Saab get good sales in North America and China, the European and Australasian markets are not significant in terms of 94x sales. In terms of survival of the company and generating sales that will lead to security and expansion, I would have thought every market counts.

    I love Mercedes, but every time I consider purchasing one an alternative vehicle, offering better value for money, appears on my horizon. Perhaps the 94x, with a diesel engine, would be it.

    • How much more expensive is gasoline than petrol in Western Europe, I’m just curious. There’s a tax break too, right? The ML350 3.5L petrol engine gets 17/22 while the BlueTec diesel gets 20/25. It seems like the average is only 2-3 mpg different between the models, so I’m not sure how on a CUV this size it makes that huge of a difference. In the smaller CUV segment I could see how a very low displacement and low power diesel engine could give some cost benefit, but when you’re pushing around 2 tons, it gets harder for me to understand the value.

      • Hi Jeff, I am currently living in Australia and have not had to purchase fuel in W. Europe for a while. In 2009 I was looking at anywhere between 5 and 10 pence per litre more for diesel (8 – 10 US Cents). This was offset partly by much better fuel consumption with a diesel and also in the UK at least, a reduced rate of annual vehicle tax due to CO2 emissions being much lower with diesel. Company car drivers have even more tax breaks I believe and if you drive more than 15 000 miles per year, private or corporate, to have a diesel is a no brainer.

        Your figures for fuel consumption are interesting, I had not previously seen something similar. On that basis, there would not be a lot of sense opting for diesel I suppose. What size engine is the BlueTec? The 3 litre V6?

        My experience in terms of personal ownership of, or direct driving experience of, petrol and diesel cars has always been that the diesels achieve greater MPG than the equivalent petrol. I admit to being unable to back that up with direct figures at this stage.

        Modern European diesels are very fuel efficient, quite powerful and not particularly noisy. The EU emissions regulations certainly forced the engineers to think of clever things that have developed the engines no end. I drive a 2003 Audi 2.5tdi Allroad, it cruises on the highway with no audible engine noise. I previously drove a 2000 BMW 320d which was similarly pleasant for highway miles. They will never be quieter in the low gears than a petrol, nor will they accelerate quite as well from a standing start as an equivalent petrol, but they are highly suitable. Hence my passion to see a diesel in a 94x, I cannot envisage buying one without.

        Here in Australia there are less tax breaks that I am aware of and recently the price per litre has been within 1 – 2 cents of each other. Prices of fuel have risen in the eighteen months that I have lived here, so whilst they are equivalent, diesel makes more sense and Australian buyers of large vehicles are beginning to realise that. Ford have finally brought out a diesel SUV here, the territory, and are thinking of a diesel Falcon I believe (a large sedan or wagon).

        Having said all of that, I would not want a diesel in my convertible…. somethings just cannot be tampered with. The roof down and a diesel noise would not be the desired effect, however quiet they are with the roof up.

        Thanks for your article.

        • I was intrigued by the matter of the Bluetec… it gets a stinking report in this article:

          Perhaps the transmission also has something to do with it, I don’t know.

          Amongst all this, I must say that this current ML is a vast improvement on the first generation, but still not pretty. It seems to be following a look that I like on the C class estate/station wagon, but not on the GLK (available in Europe) and not on this ML. It would not be my first choice.

          • A quote from the link posted by DRM:

            It pollutes less, largely because, as common in today’s 50-state diesels, urea carried in a small tank is injected into the exhaust stream to chemically cut oxides of nitrogen, a pollutant that’s been hard to exorcise from diesel exhaust. The dealer refills the urea (aka AdBlue) tank at oil changes, but unlike BMW, M-B charges for oil changes.

            I find this hard to believe. Surely nobody would buy into a system like that?

            Next someone will say that you should check your engine oil every time you refill gasoline. Oh wait… VW/Audi already tell people to do this…

      • Jeff TBH there is not much in it here in the UK
        Sitting down? today Unleaded Fourstar Petrol (95ron/oct) £1.32 per Litre
        Deisel £1.38 per litre- whats that about 4%?

        your months in service to recoup costs on the price of deisel just got longer as it is now so fractional.

        But…Deisels are supposed to last longer and go further and pull harder so it is still a useful option, and the higher compression means you can go much further on a tank which is a little more convenient than stopping every 350 miles to fill up.

  14. Why does wood in an MB always look like plastic? Even when they used real wood way back in the late 80s it still looked fake. Can’t say I’m a big fan of orange wood though.

    Let’s hope the 9-4X puts some money in Saab’s pocket!

  15. The interior of the Mercedes is really ugly! Not a single harmonic line, how can anyone perceive this as “premium”???

    • “Not a single harmonic line, how can anyone perceive this as “premium”???”
      Spot-on! I will not “bad-mouth” different brands here; but there are several from Asia and Germany etc. that have interiors that are plain ugly, really ugly; and as you say “not a single harmonic line”. I can’t understand how people can live with that, buy it, especially “premium brands”, these people usually have quite a lot to choose among; if your budget is $10k, then it’s bit difficult.

  16. Here’s what MBUSA Execs have to say about the new ML from a marketing perspective (from an AutoWeek post on 7/12/11)

    “The positioning for this vehicle is ‘more of everything.’ The new exterior is more distinctive and aggressive, and the new interior is also really impressive,” said Steve Cannon, vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA, of Montvale, N.J.

    Bernhard Glaser, general manager of product management for Mercedes-Benz USA, said new standard equipment such as a drowsiness warning system represents a 3 percent price-value improvement over 2011 models.

    Through June, M-class sales are up 15 percent from a year ago, to 14,189 units.

    Cannon said the company will stress high-tech safety features in ads that will break closer to the September launch.

    “We’ve got an ad that’s in development. It isn’t all finished yet, but it’s going to say something like, ‘The new M class, with its lane-departure warning, its drowsiness monitor, etc. etc. makes more decisions in a mile than other cars make in their whole lifetime.’”

    “That’s really going to set it apart,” Cannon said at a press introduction here for the new M class.

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