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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - M-class - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Style, space, comfort, safety
Room for improvement
Steering wheel transmission controls, space-saver spare only

Mercedes-Benz logo7 Sep 2005

By TIM BRITTEN

MERCEDES-BENZ has made a great fist of redefining the M-class. An alloy fist in a velvet glove.

The new model just launched onto the Australian market adopts a more rugged stance while easing towards BMW X5-style on-road capabilities.

The M-class is bigger, but weighs less, is potentially better off-road, yet very sedan-like and aerodynamic on the tarmac, is faster on the road, yet more economical and is more expensive, but represents better value than the outgoing series.

Much of this is due to the adoption of full unitary body construction that has enabled the M-class to be bigger and torsionally stronger without impinging on all-up weight.

And much of it has to do with the new V6 engine lineup that includes a 3.5-litre petrol version as well as a 3.0-litre turbodiesel that will come in a month or so.

There’s also the adoption of the Mercedes 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission as standard on all models from the turbodiesel to the mildly reworked five-litre V8. The expanded ratio spread helps accelerative ability, while the taller gearing at cruising speeds means improved fuel economy.

First impressions of the M-class suggest a vehicle of more substance. It’s not just that it’s obviously bigger – it also looks solid and tough with its bulging wheel arches, wide-track stance and cut-off front and rear ends that suggest good approach and departure angles.

Yet it is clearly quite aerodynamic (the Cd is a commendable, car-like 0.34) and displays some of the emerging smooth and flowing Benz styling themes that are most notably evident in the coupe-style CLS four-door.

Inside, the M-class is all clean and functional, with no obvious straying from Benz passenger-car levels of quality, fit and finish.

Importantly, it notches-up the amount of passenger space provided, as well as expanding the load area which, with the three-piece rear seats folded, can accommodate up to 2050 litres of luggage.

On the road, the new M-class is demonstrably a more together SUV. There’s no denying that, despite the weight decrease, it’s still a substantial vehicle, yet it steers with a surety that is quite surprising even in an environment where we have the X5 as a large SUV benchmark.

The Airmatic hydraulic suspension (standard on ML500, optional on ML320 and ML350) contains body roll effectively while delivering a nicely controlled ride without the small-bump “spikes” often found in air-sprung systems.

A slightly reduced weight favours the V6-engined ML350 over the V8 ML500 in terms of on-road feel, although in the latter case there’s no denying the appeal of a high-revving V8 that will spin out to 6000rpm and snap-shift through seven ratios like a hard-charging superbike.

The new V6 is not as grunty as the V8 of course, but it’s pretty quiet and doesn’t mind a rev - and is probably even better served by the seven-speed auto. At an indicated 100km/h, the V6 is spinning at a lazy, silent and fuel-saving 2100rpm.

The BMW 7 Series style column gear selector actually proves okay to live with, although the wheel-mounted sequential shifters suffer the usual problem if making for awkward shifting if there’s any wheel lock applied. Some may claim that attempting a gearshift in anything but the straight-ahead position is improper, and something an F1 driver would never do, but in everyday driving practices that’s not the case. A conventional centre sequential shifter beats wheel-mounted buttons any time.

In auto mode, the ratio changes come readily, even on part throttle, and the box is intuitive enough to know when to kick down, and stay down, without excessive hunting between gears.

The M-class is tighter-bodied and feels it. The only buzz that came from the car during the test drive was from drink bottles sitting in the door-mounted aperture. Otherwise everything is solid, quiet, with little wind noise and well-attenuated road noise.

The prolific electronic systems go about their task generally unobtrusively, although there are times, on dirt roads, when the stability control will kick in noticeably to contain an imminent tail-out. The ABS system is smart enough to know how to bite through gravel and feels as decisive off-road as it feels capable of hauling-in the two-tonne-plus M-class on the road. A Benz hangover is the foot-operated park brake.

The test route in the central highlands of Tasmania didn’t provide any off-road driving, so that will have to wait until Benz launches the ML 320 CDI where we will get to experience the Off Road Pro pack with its dual-range transmission and extra ride height adjustments.

Regular single-range M-class models get a certain amount of off-road capability via the full-time, three-differential four-wheel drive, traction control, adjustable ride height (in Airmatic versions), hill descent control and Start-Off Assist which enables the vehicle to get easily under way after being stopped on a steep incline.

And, not surprisingly, Mercedes says this is the safest SUV yet, what with all its electronic control systems, its impact-absorbing body, the proactive Pre-Safe occupant protection system, active front head restraints and a total of eight airbags.

There’s never any doubt that this is a very different M-class.

The tougher looks deliver a bigger, stronger, more capable and credible Benz SUV that offers the option of getting a lot more serious in the bush than the majority of its peers. It’s also an outstanding SUV on the road with great handling and more performance, yet is less demanding at the fuel pump.

Even though it remains an SUV of a slightly different colour to the X5 – due largely to its off-road capability – the M-class has certainly bridged the gap in terms of desirability.

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