SOMEONE’S been working out. With more bulk, but leaner and sharper definition, the all-new Mercedes-Benz M-Class underlines just how frumpy and soft the outgoing model looked.
Introduced to this country in 1998, initially in ML320 guise, the first generation of the M-Class gave Mercedes-Benz South Africa its first chance to tap into the then fast-developing SUV market. That market has continued to grow ever since, and the original “softroader” Merc has achieved its goal of sharing equal pavement space with its rivals at shopping centres around the country. What the owners of these MLs would struggle to admit, however, is that the badge on the front was what did the hard-sell off the showroom floor – it certainly wasn’t the poorly assembled cheap plastic interior and trim…
Now the new M-Class will be demanding even more of that pavement space, with increased length (up 158 mm), width (71 mm) and wheelbase (95 mm), but this time with more aggressive looks, and a new and very much improved interior as well.
While not a radical step away from the original design, clever use of crease lines, and the sharpened treatment on areas such as headlights and grille, have given the newcomer significantly more road presence. The main exterior features include wide flared wheelarches up-front with even bigger arches to the rear. Smaller touches, including an imitation “bash-plate” below the number plate housing, add to the aggressive character of the vehicle.
But the ML hasn’t grown in height: in fact, it has a lower roof line, which goes a long way towards creating a sleeker profile. The tall, sloped windscreen meets the roof line quite high up, adding to the sense of roominess in the cabin. On our test models, however – we’ve sampled both the ML500 and ML320 CDI first off – a combination of this tall glasshouse and light interior trim options created some unwelcome glare.
One thing the new ML doesn’t let you forget while seated in it is its sheer size. This is a big vehicle. Although there’s always been a big cabin, it now comes with a sense of style and comfort that was lacking in previous versions. Interior quality has taken a major leap forward: gone are the rattles and squeaks that plagued the original ML. Where there is plastic, it has a quality feel, although some seam lines, especially in the door linings, won’t be easy to keep clean, especially in the slightly impractical light-coloured spec.
As with the new S-Class, the gear selector has been moved (BMW style) to a position on the steering column to the right of the wheel. This frees up storage space in the centre console.
It is near impossible not to find a comfortable driving position, as the standard leather seats offer multiple electric adjustment. So does the steering wheel, which also features easy-to-use controls for various functions including audio and on-board computer readouts. On the higher spec ML500, an extra stalk protruding from the front seats allows you to electrically adjust side lumber and bolster settings. With the “COMAND including navigation” option ticked off on the shopping-list, a colour display monitor livens up the two-tone facia with radio, telephone, video, and guidance systems. The standard display, without the navigation, is possibly more user-friendly, but blends into the darkness of the remainder of the centre hangdown section. That is, until the sun sets and the many switches light up with the headlights. This is quite a spectacular sight to the unsuspecting passenger – and a tad intimidating to an unsuspecting driver.
Controls situated below the climate control buttons operate various settings for the ML’s optional Airmatic air suspension, as well as – and in conjunction with – a more serious “Technical Off-road Package”. For “only” R15 000 on top of the base price, the air suspension offers three stiffness levels for Sport, Comfort and Normal driving. The Sport setting firms up the suspension for enthusiastic driving, whereas the Comfort setting makes for leisurely long distance cruising, but is a bit wallowy for everyday use.
In standard form, the ML will appeal to those with only pavements and other minor off-road excursions in mind. Downhill Speed Regulation, Start-Off Assist and an off-road ABS system should prove more than sufficient. For the explorers, and those who still require the extra bragging rights, the additional R16 000 offroad package gains you 100 per cent differential locks between thfront and rear axle and on the rear axle, low range, and further air suspension settings that allow the ground clearance to be raised to a 291 mm maximum.
While you dazzle your passengers with the functions of all the buttons on the facia, their eyes might catch some familiare Mercedes controls, such as the standard ESP and the transmission mode selector. Marked “S/M”, this determines whether the 7G-Tronic gearbox’s shift points complement a sportier style of driving, or whether it can be changed manually using slightly small, somewhat hidden paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. In the default setting, gearchanges are slick and nearseamless. There is a slight delay, however, as the gearbox translates a big movement downward on the accelerator into a step down in gears.
The ’box coupled with our flagship ML500 test unit’s 5,0-litre V8 engine didn’t seem to offer an easy way to consistently pull off the mark smoothly. Slight pressure on the pedal resulted in painfully slow creep, while greater pressure unloaded more guns than required. However, on our test day it was all guns blazing as we launched from standstill to 100 km/h in just 7,7 seconds. A twoway average top speed of 234 km/h didn’t prove too scary despite the 2 347 kilograms of body mass. Generating 225 kW at 5 600 r/min with 460 N.m of torque between 2 700 and 4 750 r/min, the ML500 offers a comfortable compromise between cruise and grunt speeds. And the 95-litre fuel tank will come in handy should enthusiasm take over from “cents”.
More frugal, but with just as much ability, was our second test car, the ML320 CDI. Mercedes-Benz’s common-rail direct injection 3,0-litre V6 with turbocharger proved more than capable of providing ultra smooth acceleration and ample top end comfort. What’s more, apart from a slight rattle at start up, the level of refinement of this engine – and general levels of sound deadening in the vehicle – mean you would be hard pressed to identify the diesel engine from a petrol once on the move.
Using most of its 165 kW at 3 800 r/min and impressive 510 N.m between 1 600 and 2 800 r/min, we were able to reach the 100 km/h mark from standstill in 9,6 seconds, and surge on to a top speed of 215 km/h.
ABS-assisted ventilated disc brakes all-around on the ML500, and front ventilated/solid rear on the ML320, delivered impressive stopping times of 2,91 and 2,95 seconds, respectively, in our 10-stop 100-to-zero braking test.
On the road, the new Mercedes SUV handled as well as could be expected from a vehicle of this size. It’s not a very natural sensation, being seated so high up while trying to conquer twisty roads, but the new ML does well. When traction control does kick in, it’s to prevent a natural four-wheel drive tendency to understeer.
The steel monocoque structure, which supersedes the ladderframe chassis of the outgoing model, adds to the improved handling. Should things go horribly wrong, there’s Mercedes Benz’s PRE-SAFE system, which anticipates the worst and takes protective measures. This includes bracing your seatbelt, moving the head restraints closer to your head, and closing the sunroof in anticipation of a roll over. In other words, if any of the above begins to happen, either tap off or “assume the position”.
Only our ML500 had the optional Parktronic park sensors fitted, and the system was missed, for a change, on the other model, as these large vehicles are not the easiest to manoeuvre in tight spots, the front end not being visible from the driver’s seat.
Slightly gimmicky, but adding to the poser appeal of the ML, the tailgate is electric, up and down, and saves you having to use your shoulder or arm muscles. Once open, there is 344 dm3 of boot space. Placing the rear seats flat will gain you a further 1 076 dm3.
Mercedes-Benz was one of the first manufacturers to try its hand at creating a vehicle that threatened to go anywhere, but seldom did. Now the brand is back with a second offering, a product that should remain at the head of the pack for the foreseeable future