Saab 9-4X Vs. Mercedes-Benz ML350

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.

 

till72
Member
5 years 2 months ago

Great article, Jeff!

RS
Member
5 years 2 months ago

+1.
Till, speaking about eyes the Merc looks like a…

till72
Member
5 years 2 months ago

I’d say it looks a bit like Sid.

As we say here in Germany: “If I want to drive Mercedes I’ll call a taxi!” 😉

Audun
Member
5 years 2 months ago

🙂 LOL 🙂

michael
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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.

Coke is it
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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.

Audun
Member
5 years 2 months ago

+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. 🙂

Toby K
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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.

900 classic cab
Guest
5 years 2 months ago

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

michael
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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. 🙂

Troels, Denmark
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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… (??)

michael
Member
5 years 2 months ago

Agreed!

saabman
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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.

RobinM
Member
5 years 2 months ago

Nice and fair, well done Jeff.

rune
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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

JH
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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

Troels, Denmark
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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!

Audun
Member
5 years 2 months ago

+1

fuzzi
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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

Jake
Member
5 years 2 months ago

Some say yes, some say no.

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

Romac
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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).

Teme1001
Member
5 years 2 months ago
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.… Read more »
Jake
Member
5 years 2 months ago

Is it worth 15K extra, though?

M.A.
Member
5 years 2 months ago
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… Read more »
TU 900
Member
5 years 2 months ago
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… Read more »
DRM
Member
5 years 2 months ago
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… Read more »
zippy
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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!

Carmania
Member
5 years 2 months ago

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

Tripod
Member
5 years 2 months ago

“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.

Steve C.
Member
5 years 2 months ago
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,… Read more »
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