Garry Fabian reviews the M-Class Mercedes-Benz.
Luxury SUV’s have become a part of the landscape…But our obsession with leather-lined wagons-on-stilts only dates back to the late ‘90s, a brief blip in time.
The Mercedes-Benz ML-Class and the Lexus RX300 were at the genesis – two radically different takes on the same formula, one car-based for better in-town manners, the other a rough-and-tumble near-off-roader with a German accent.
Despite the ML’s less-than-glamorous reputation for poor reliability and questionable assembly in its early days, Mercedes-Benz persevered with the project, investing billions of dollars.
The follow-up in ’05 was redemption in terms of design, dynamics and overall quality. Mall parking lots full of the luxury SUV are the loudest confirmation it had the right combination of style, power and safety.
The result is an SUV that’s slightly longer and wider, but shorter than before. The exterior seems less dramatic, but does carry over the sharper eyes, LED running lights and wide rear arches from MB’s latest sedans and coupes.
The rear treatment mimics the new E-Class Wagon, but brushed-aluminium skid plates front and rear help butch up the design.
The thick, sharply angled C-pillar is carried through for the third-gen too.
The standard 19-inch wheels stand out and the ML now uses electric assistance for its power steering – as opposed to a hydraulic pump that leeches power from the engine.
Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler co-designed the chassis and some shared components under the skin, and we’ve already seen the positive results on the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Double-wishbone front suspension promises refinement and the multi-link rear design is a good compromise between wheel and on-road dynamics.
From there, ‘Benz adds its own all-new active roll bars at both ends, which can individually control each corner rather than acting solely along each axle on traditional bars.
A seven-speed automatic transmission and full-time 4MATIC four-wheel drive are standard on every ML, as is a laundry list of active and passive safety systems, including ABS, brake assist, stability and traction control.
The typical Mercedes-Benz mentality extends with lane-keep assist, attention assist, radar-based active cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and nine air-bags, including one in the steering column to protect the driver’s knees.
Motivation comes from two familiar engines. The 3.5-liter petrol V6 gains direct injection, or a smart diesel option.
For a few dollars more, the 3.0-liter BlueTEC turbo diesel V6 is a worthwhile choice, especially now that off-season tweaks have brought horsepower up to 165 kW and torque to a head-shaking 510 Nm.
All that extra power will not upset your accountant, as good economy is part of the package.
The ML diesel will return just under 10lt/100 on the highway.
Despite their differences, both models will accelerate to 100/kmh in 8.0 seconds, and are both rated to tow 3500kg, although the diesel would be more comfortable in that exercise.
Gear shifts are controlled by a push button style stalk, which is an interesting innovation.
Out on the road, the BlueTEC feels more effortless to drive since a small flex of your right foot unleashes Big-Block levels of torque, and passing manoeuvres are generally stress-free affairs.
The brakes are good, but the ML feels large and solid, not masking its size with agility-enhancing electronics like the Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5.
Cabin din is reasonably low, although there is some wind noise that makes its way through all the glazing and sound deadening.
The interior is a mix of old and new – the radio, HVAC controls and central COMMAND screen are familiar friends, but the rest of the gauges, seats and controls are new.
Like the exterior, the cabin shares many more traditional themes with the E-Class sedan, but the materials are first rate.
Soft-touch plastics and leathers mix well with wood and chrome. The heated seats are comfortable and adjust in a half-dozen different ways, and the rear seats are more spacious than before.
Cargo area is generous, holding 36 cu-ft with the seats up, and 71 cu-ft with everything folded flat.
But even the basic ML is a good compromise between luxury and safety. While it’s hard to pick out any one area where the ‘Benz excels overall it is a very top class product. If there is one small criticism, it is the lack of left foot rest. This would be a useful asset, but in order to fit this, the pedal operated parking brake would need to relocated.
NUTS and BOLTS
Engine: 3.0 litre V6 diesel producing 165kW and 510Nm
Transmission : Seven-speed automatic
Safety: Not tested
Warranty: Three years
Price: From $83,500
For further information, please see Recalls and faults: Mercedes-Benz W166 M-Class.