Richard Aucock
18/03/2005 00:00 | By Richard Aucock, contributor, MSN Cars

Mercedes-Benz M-Class review (2005-2009)



Mercedes M-Class (© Mercedes)


The Mercedes M-Class may have pioneered the premium SUV sector back in 1997, but ever since the launch of BMW’s X5 in 2000, it’s been on the back foot.

New Mercedes-Benz M-class

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New generation

New generation

It still looks like an M-Class, but a much-refined one, with some exquisite detailing in places. The rear window wraps around the D-pillars, for example, creating a concept car effect that accentuates the trademark forward-inclined C-pillars. At the front there’s a ‘cheese-grater’ grille and enormous Mercedes badge, while buyers can choose a tough ‘off-road-look’ pack that adds metal sump guards and tougher trims. We’ve seen those headlights before though; on the Kia Sorento.

New Mercedes M-class interior

Gone is the old model’s dash, thankfully, and in comes a glorious cabin that’s worlds apart for quality and finish. The dials are very SLK, the centre console better than an E-Class and the new design means more space front and back; the rear seat is particularly comfortable, while the boot is enormous. No central gear lever though – the M-Class introduces Mercedes’ ‘Direct Select’ column-mounted gearlever. Flick down for ‘D’, up for ‘N’ and press a button on the end for ‘P’. It could not be simpler, and is a feel-good delight to use.

Engines

New Mercedes M-class: ‘Direct Select’ column-mounted gearlever

There will be various engines but at first there are two petrols and a diesel. The ML 350 petrol uses a 272bhp 3.5-litre V6, which proves a smooth, exceedingly quiet runner without really offering warrior-like pace. It’s quick but needs to be revved, causing the standard-to-all seven-speed auto to change down a few gears, interrupting the flow slightly. The gearbox is also susceptible to a few jolty shifts in town, when it seems unable to decide upon the correct gear. Far more meaty, as you’d expect, is the 306bhp ML 500 V8, which makes a burbly but still refined noise, with bags of low-down grunt and real menace when the driver demands speed; 0-60mph in 6.9 seconds is not hanging about.

First Drive: All-new Mercedes-Benz M-class

But few will buy it, and while more will choose the ML 350, most buyers will select diesel, just as 60 per cent did with the old ML. Thus, the ML 320 CDI is a crucial model. Luckily it’s also the best. The new V6 diesel is good for 224bhp and 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds, but it’s the sheer refinement and very torquey nature that impress. This has serious grunt from very low revs and is a very eager performer – which you don’t mind exploiting given a smooth engine note that’s deeper than the petrol model, but hardly any less smooth. 30mpg isn’t to be sniffed at either; the ML 500 averages just 21mpg while, in everyday motoring, not feeling a deal faster than this.

On the road

Strange that we should talk about speed with an M-Class. But, unlike before, you’ll willingly use it in this, given the sheer excellence of the chassis. We only drove models with AIRMATIC air suspension (an option for around £1,750) but on this evidence, selecting it will buy you a superb vehicle. Ride quality impresses first, with an ability to soak up scars and bumps without, like many 4x4s, sending shudders through the cabin and vibrating the steering column.

First Drive: All-new Mercedes-Benz M-class

Body control is also impressive, eradicating the previous car’s queasy wallow. But it also handles. Very little roll and a keenness to turn into corners do a fine job of disguising its size and bulk that’s on the wrong side of two tons. Steering is light and, while it lacks a degree of self-centering action, offers accuracy and precision that cannot fail to impress for one so large. For the particularly keen, an off-road package is available with selectable ride heights, selectable differential locks and a low-ratio gearbox. We tried it out and were amazed not only at the car’s ability, but at its serenity too.

First Drive: All-new Mercedes-Benz M-class

We stuck with the ML 320 CDI for the rest of the trip, experiencing it on the motorway where it was settled (and near-silent apart from wind noise around the door mirrors), and in town where it turned plenty of heads and out-menaced a Porsche Cayenne in a tight spot. Traffic queues helped us appreciate the neat detailing of the dashboard and, once again, the leap in quality. At night, the blue illumination is also very classy.

Verdict

The new ML is a very good car indeed. Vastly improved over the old one, it is, we suspect, a real class-topper. It arrives in the UK in September, for prices said to be around 10 per cent higher than before; reckon on around £35,000 then. Until then, get some cracking deals on the current car – but we really would suggest you wait and spend the extra on the new one. Get your order in now. It’s that good.

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Key data:
Engine: 3.5 V6 turbodiesel
Power: 224bhp
Torque: 376lb/ft
0-62mph: 8.6 seconds
Max speed: 132mph
Economy: 30.0mpg (combined)

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