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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - M-class - ML280 CDI 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth, responsive turbo-diesel engine, ride comfort, interior space
Room for improvement
Steering feel, column gear selector, foot-operated handbrake, lack of full-size spare, cost of off-road package

12 Feb 2009

THE luxury SUV market – like many markets at present – is not what it used to be. The number of people able and willing to shell out more than $60,000 on a new SUV wagon is declining as fast as the value of their share portfolios.

In January 2009, M-class sales are down 43 per cent in a segment that is down 26 per cent overall. Even the long-serving class leader, the BMW X5, is down 33 per cent.

Yet there are still buyers for such luxury goods out there, and perhaps some of them are considering a less expensive model, such as the entry-level ML280 CDI. In the Mercedes’ case, they might be making the most astute purchase in the M-class range.

The $81,000 entry-level ML280 CDI is short on power and torque compared with the $13,000 more expensive ML320 CDI. Oh, and the badge on the tailgate is different.

The M-class has a presence on the road, and with its mild update last year of the 2005 original, has matured into a stylish, classy looking SUV – except for maybe the grille. For fear that anyone might miss the brand markings, it appears as if Mercedes went to its truck division for the three-pointed star for the M-class grille. It is huge, and if ever a hapless M-class owner got lost in the bush, at least they might be able to detach the grille’s three-pointed star and go spear hunting for sustenance.

Although this entry-level SUV Benz has a subdued, gravelly diesel rattle, in all other respects it is most un-diesel-like in character. Plenty of torque, little turbo lag and a free-spinning nature are the attributes. This diesel engine, in its myriad variants and applications, must be one of the world’s best.

With 140kW and 44Nm, the 280 CDI falls short of the 320 CDI’s outputs by 25kW and 70Nm. On paper, that’s a fair sum, yet after driving the 280 CDI you don’t walk away with the impression that it is underpowered. It has just a slight turbo-lag at low revs and then simply gets into its stride.

The ML280 CDI weighs more than 2100kg but can get to 100km/h in less than 10 seconds. That’s only part of the story though in the real-world, where rolling throttle response is important, the ML dutifully responds to throttle requests without the sluggish feel of some similar-size SUVs.

Helping the engine do such a great job is the seven-speed automatic, which changes gears almost imperceptibly.

Fuel consumption dropped to 8.9L/100km on test on the open road, but averaged around 11.0L/100km around town.

The standard ML280 CDI has a single-range transmission and an all-wheel-drive system that would put it just ahead of the BMW X5 in terms of off-road ability (thanks mainly to the M-class’s better ground clearance) although (like the X5) its hill descent control and traction control can take it surprisingly deep into off-road territory.

But if you really want to head off-road, the Mercedes has an ace up its sleeve that the X5 does not. It called the Off-Road Pro Engineering Package – a $6400 ask – which is a lot to add for the ability to adequately go off-road, yet is an oblique admission by Mercedes-Benz that most of its customers don’t buy an M-class to do so. At least the cost of the package is more attractive than it once was: back in 2006, it cost $10,150.

The independent, all coil wishbone suspension does a good job of blotting bumps and although abrupt concrete joining strips or deep potholes can spoil the serenity, the ride quality over such surfaces is better on this coil-spring ML than the upmarket air spring models.

The ML steers with a fair degree of precision for a two-tonne SUV, although the steering feels light and doesn’t have the meaty feel or response of the X5.

The cabin exudes the sort of quality feel that the pre-2005 US-built MLs simply couldn’t. Although the dashboard is not wrapped in leather like the much more expensive GL-class, the fit and finish of the ML280 CDI is good.

Unless you are really tall, it’s a step-up into the cabin for the driver yet once there you’re master over all you survey – it feels like one of the taller SUVs, which is what many buyers like about such vehicles.

The driver is presented with reasonably simple dash layout and the useful trip computer is front and centre and there is plenty of storage space in the cabin.

The gear selector mounted on the right side of the column is something that Mercedes-Benz might want to reconsider for the next M-class as for some drivers it will be easy to mistake for the indicator wand (which is mounted on the opposite side of the steering column).

Perhaps regular use gets one accustomed to it and mistakes are not made, but for the M-class novice it is confusing. The foot-operated parking brake also seems to have outlived its usefulness – there are plenty of cheaper SUVs that now feature an electronic parking brake.

Vision out of the M-Class is about average for a large SUV, which is to say not fantastic. Rear three-quarter view is impeded slightly by the thick C- and D-pillars.

Seats are quite firm, but there is sufficient side support, and the rear seat occupants don’t get the raw deal they often do – it is quite comfortable. The seat material is Mercedes-Benz’s proprietary man-made leather called ‘ARTICO’, which if its predecessor the extremely durable ‘MB-Tex’ is any guide, will prove to be the last thing to fall apart at the eventual end of the vehicle’s service life.

Certainly this stuff looks like leather, feels like leather and is probably is better than leather.

The M-class has child-seat anchors conveniently fitted behind plastic covers on the seat backs, and the split/fold arrangement presents a flat floor.

The cargo area is accessed by a tall lift-up tailgate and the load floor is reasonably low and with the 500 litres (seats up) capacity, it is quite generous for the category.

In this category, it is hard to avoid comparisons with the M-class’ chief competitor and ringleader of the luxury SUV sales pack, the BMW X5.

BMW’s X5 3.0d has 33kW more power and 80Nm more torque, is about a second faster, has 120 litres more luggage space and is arguably a better drive.

While the X5 has advantages such as the option of a third row seat and the questionable benefit of run-flat tyres, the ML has its own advantages such as a power driver’s seat as standard. Oh, and it is also about $7500 cheaper than the BMW, although at this level of SUV, that difference won’t buy you much on either vehicle’s options list.

In the scheme of things, the ML280 CDI is a competent and – if there is such a thing – good-value luxury SUV. If you must have a SUV and want to have one that is well built, safe and not too thirsty, it would be hard to step past the ML 280 CDI on the M-class ladder.

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