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.
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.
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.