Mercedes ML 320 CDI
Longer, Wider, Lower, Prettier SUV
Ugly Duckling Almost Becomes A Cute-Ute
Hugely Capable Restyled Machine Faces Tough Competition
Im confused about Mercedes Benz. An editor of mine in a previous life, he was Dutch, used to look down his nose at Mercedes, saying that only Belgian grocers bought them.
If you go to Germany, you see what to British eyes are upmarket, luxury, E-Class Mercedes, lined up humbly at airports and railway stations plying for hire as mere taxis, just like Vauxhall Vectras and Ford Mondeos. This must also have something to do with the tax regime in mainland Europe, which allows taxi-drivers to buy upmarket machines, whereas chief Labour party bloodsucker Gordon Brown forces us to squeeze into the back of cheap Vauxhalls, Fords, Skodas and Renaults.
The final straw which, in a logical world, would consign the image of Mercedes to the likes of Volkswagen and Fiat, is the trucks. When youre not being buzzed by a Mercedes Sprinter driven by a tattoed white van man, you find some massive, gargantuan truck looming over you, blotting out the sun and frightening you to death.
Despite this obvious link with the commercial world, Mercedes still maintains a powerful image as a luxury marque, which must say something about consumers deeply felt conviction about the brand. Can you imagine the impact on BMW or Audi if there were trucks and vans of the same name?
Mercedes has also found its reputation for rock-solid reliability being chipped way recently, mainly because of over-ambitious electronics, but also because the company decided that many of its cars were over-engineered. Evidence of the success of this move to under-engineer its cars came earlier this year when CEO Jurgen Schrempp, since demised in mysterious circumstances, announced a recall of 1.3 million cars, its largest ever.
Mercedes has stuttered. But it is doing its best to fight back. Leading the charge is the new Mercedes M-Class SUV, which is longer, wider and lower than the model it replaces.
The old model, launched in 1997, was a bit bland, and didnt win any accolades for interior space. The new one looks much snappier.
The latest model has a lot more room and much more presence on the road, with swoopier curves in all the right places, muscles in others; an altogether more attractive looking machine, although it does look decidedly Lexus RX300 around the rear, side view.
The interior is very impressive, with many of the dials and switches well known to other Mercedes drivers. It feels a quality machine, and it will have to be considering the competition.
I recently drove the Range Rover Sport, off and on-road, not to mention its cheaper little brother, the Discovery 3. The Range Rover has an almost silken feel to the way it drives. Its capability off road is second to none. The Mercedes M-class was terrific off-road too, not quite so impressive on-road as the Land Rover. The Merc seemed to have simpler controls, which can be invoked on the move. The Range Rovers Terrain Response system has 5 off-road settings, but once you made your selection the computer does the rest. With the M-Class, it is simpler to start the off-road mode, but more complicated if the going gets tough.
If you dont think you are going to be doing much driving off road, you can opt for a version without the traditional 4x4 options like locking centre differential and low-range gearbox. The technology linked to the brakes and traction control will see you through most foreseeable problems. If you are a serious mud-plugger, you can go for extras costing £1,320 including low-ratios.
Steering Wheel Stalk
There are three engine choices at launch a three 3.0 litre 224 bhp V6 diesel, a 3.5 litre 272 bhp V6 petrol, and a 5.0 litre 306 bhp V8. The automatic gearbox has 7 speeds. The operating mechanism is a stalk on the steering wheel. This frees up space between the driver and passenger, but wont be to everyones taste. There are paddles behind the steering wheel so that if the world is about to come to an end, you might finally like to change gear manually. Double wishbones at the front and a four-link suspension at the rear keep the car nicely on the road and handle even Britains nasty road surfaces with aplomb.
The diesel engine will presumably be the most popular motor and it worked a treat, providing effortless, quiet power. Mercedes reports with some glee on the results of a test by Auto Bild car magazine between this Mercedes ML320 CDI diesel against the Lexus RX400h petrol-electric hybrid. Auto Bild found the Japanese hybrid wanting.
Diesel versus Hybrid
Auto Bild, according to Mercedes, said that in a 3,210 mile/5,200 km sea-to-shining-sea test across America from New York to San Francisco, the 3.2 litre 224 bhp V6 diesel returned 31.04 miles per gallon-9.1 l/100km - 10.8 per cent better than the 27.69 mpg-10.2 l/100km for the 3.3 litre 211 bhp V-6 petrol-hybrid Lexus. Even in town, where hybrids are said to be at their best, the Lexus was only 0.42 mpg better than the diesel.
Prices start at £36,710 (¤54,239 euros), and thats about £2,500 (¤3,700 euros) more than the old one. And reckon on at least £40,000 (¤59,100 euros) with a few of the must-have bits and bobs.
Neil Winton September 21, 2005
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