Mercedes-Benz ML-Class put to the test
THIRD time's a charm for Mercedes-Benz when it comes to the prestige brand's big sports utility vehicle.
It's the third iteration of the luxury offering, and while prices have risen, so have the specification levels.
There are still a swag of optional extras, but the new list of standard gear means you can easily live with the stock model without feeling like you have skimped.
And things have obviously struck a chord with buyers. In recent months the M-Class was the biggest selling SUV in its category, and has been achieving doubled the volume compared to the same time last year.
While the range has an entry point of $81,400 for the four-cylinder turbo-diesel, we sampled the $99,990 petrol derivative.
Elegance and functionality blend in the M-Class cabin. It's not overdone, with a combination of electronic and analogue operations.
You get real leather on the seats and artificial stuff on the dash and doors (not that most would know).
The transmission stalk on the steering wheel frees up space through the middle and there is a generous allocation for bottles/cups, space for phones and keys, along with a deep console that has a dual door opening system.
It's simple to change the climate controlled air conditioning, but for the audio, sat nav and phone connectivity you have to delve into the Command system. This can take some time to find your bearings, but once you get the hang of using the central dial it is straight-forward.
With excellent space front and back, four adults are cocooned in comfort - five may stretch friendships. The front seats have brilliant adjustability and great lumbar support.
On the road
Perched high in an opulent cabin, you get an immediate sense of confidence.
Every prod of your right foot is accompanied by throaty and strong response from the bent six. It's difficult to fault the partnership between the V6 and the seven-speed automatic transmission which is velvety in its performance.
You have the option to take control manually via steering wheel paddles but given the self shifter does the job well, it is a function used for fun rather than necessity.
Attack a bend with too much enthusiasm and you quickly feel every centimetre of the 4.8m long and 2130kg frame. You can't defy gravity, and given the M-Class also has the ability to go off-road you need the ground clearance and body roll is par for the course.
The steering is decidedly light, which is useful in tight carparks - but not as valuable as the radar parking sensors and rear view camera which are vital aids in the urban jungle due to the thick side and rear pillars.
One of the brilliant new additions is the electronic park brake. Gone is the foot-operated function which used to make a un-Mercedes-like clunk when released.
We also sampled the optional Driving Assistance package that includes systems such as radar cruise control, blind spot warning and lane keeping assist. All are useful, although the lane keeping function can be disconcerting when it takes control and steers you back into the centre of the road.
What do you get?
The price has risen for this model, but you get some pretty impressive gear as standard. Among the highlights are memory adjustment for the front seats and steering column, self-parking, leather upholstery, burr walnut trim, 20-inch alloys, sat-nav, CD/DVD, Bluetooth and media interface for iPod, USB and auxiliary audio (with cables).
On the safety front there are nine airbags, Attention Assist which analyses your driving and lets you know when you should take a break, blind spot warning, active land-keeping assist, along with the usual suite like anti-lock brakes and stability control. It all adds up to a five-star rating. There is also an off-road mode.
The key rival is the BMW X5 xDrive35i ($103,900), but there is also the Range Rover Sport SDV6 ($100,900), Audi Q73.0 TFSi Quattro ($95,200) and Porsche Cayenne V6 ($107,700) in a similar price range, while at the cheaper end of the scale there is the recently updated Volkswagen Touareg V6 FSi ($77,990).
Official figures have the average fuel consumption hovering around eight litres for every 100km, but we achieved closer to 10.
Those watching the pennies would best first investigate insurance and servicing costs.
Drop the back seats and the M-Class becomes a mini-van. That expands the luggage compartment from 690 to 2010 litres.
Up front there are some excellent storage allocations, between the doors and centre console they can handle all your bits and pieces.
Big and imposing, the muscular three-pointed star is difficult to miss. Some onlookers found the styling pedestrian, but it remains an alluring offering in the luxury SUV world.
Those with sharp pencils would probably have difficulty stumping up the extra $18,500 from the entry-level oil-burner, or the similarly priced 350 diesel that is more economical and has much heftier torque. Yet this V6 petrol has a nice soundtrack and combines wonderfully with the seven-speed auto. It remains a charismatic performer in the luxury realm.
Model: Mercedes-Benz ML 350 BlueEfficiency.
Details: Five-door four-wheel drive large luxury sports utility vehicle.
Engine: 3.5-litre petrol V6 generating maximum power of 225kW @ 6500rpm and peak torque of 370Nm @ 3500-5250rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters.
Consumption: 8.9 litres/100km (combined average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 7.6 seconds; top speed 210kmh.
Bottom line: $99,900.
What matters most
What we liked: Great cabin flexibility, absence of foot-operated park brake, throaty exhaust soundtrack.
What we'd like to see: Less optional extras.
Warranty: You get three years of cover with unlimited kilometres.