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First Oz drive: Benz off-roader facelift

New look: the 2002 M-class off-roader facelift is instantly recognisable

Mercedes-Benz hopes an 1100-component makeover will keep its popular M-class ahead of the luxury all-terrain wagon field

Mercedes-Benz logo2 Nov 2001

MERCEDES-BENZ has seen fit to give its top selling M-class off-roader an extensive midlife makeover involving more than 1100 new or updated parts.

Since its 1998 launch Mercedes-Benz has sold 319,000 M-class models globally and expects to sell more than 100,000 again this year. With 2700 units sold in Australia last year, M-class comfortably out-performed its luxury all-terrain wagon rivals like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, BMW X5, Range Rover and Lexus LX470.

Ahead of M-class in the large all-terrain wagon segment lie Toyota's LandCruiser and Nissan's patrol, but every model in the category has suffered a downturn this year with sales well down on 2000 levels and those achieved by many in the burgeoning medium all-terrain wagon segment.

For 2002, however, M-class comes with significant improvements to styling, safety, dynamics and equipment - moves aimed at maintaining the Mercedes-Benz off-roader's position ahead of large and luxurious newcomers like the X5 and forthcoming Porsche Cayenne and Lexus RX300.

"The M-class is a highly successful off-roader, but now with an extensive facelift involving the new development or modification of more than 1100 components it has improved functionality, comfort and safety," said Mercedes-Benz Australia managing director Mattias Luhrs at last week's 2002 M-class launch.

"The new M-class now offers even more Mercedes for your money and should remain in the lead of a changing and competitive marketplace. Nowhere else does M-class outsell X5 by a bigger margin," he said, pointing to M-class's market share of 30 per cent compared to X5's 19 per cent.

Changes common to all MLs for the 2002 model year include windowbags and adaptive front airbags as standard equipment for front seat occupants, a new-look centre console with extensive woodgrain trim, new automatic climate control with rear ventilation function, a powerful new 5.0-litre V8 for the ML430-replacing ML500, and an extensive visual overhaul designed to shift lower-spec MLs more upmarket.

Most obvious is the new look, which includes more aggressive front and rear bumpers, new clear-glass headlights and newly designed wing mirrors incorporating integrated indicators. All body attachments - including bumpers, run strips and wing mirrors - are now painted in body colour to produce a more elegant appearance.

Still on aesthetics, front foglights have been incorporated in all front bumpers, there are new-look tail-lights and a chrome-plated grille and door/tailgate handles for V8 models. Inside, the new-look centre console has an additional compartment, new woodgrain inserts and, for rear passengers, ventilation outlets, an ashtray, a new cupholder and a 12-volt power outlet.

On the technical front, a larger 83-litre fuel tank has been added across the range (except for ML55 which continues with 93 litres), along with standard Headlamp Assist and new alloy wheel designs and sizes - 255/60-section tyres on 6.0 x 17-inch wheels for ML270 CDI and ML320 models, and 275/55-section tyres on 8.5 x 17-inch wheels for the ML500.

Of course, there's also a plethora of new optional equipment available for M-class, including bi-xenon headlights, Parktronic parking assistance, Bose sound system, memory exterior mirror function and headlight washers.

The entry level ML270 CDI continues to employ state-of-the-art common-rail, direct-injection, four-valve, intercooled and turbocharged diesel technology, in this case the inline five-cylinder oil-burner producing 120kW and a massive 400Nm of torque at just 1800rpm. Available since February, 2000, the 2002 ML270 CDI rises $1000 to $65,900.

Mercedes-Benz claims the ML270 has a top speed of 185km/h and can sprint to 100km/h in 11.9 seconds. More impressive, however, is its 9.4L/100km claimed fuel consumption, which should produce a fuel tank range of more than 900km.

Mercedes-Benz's volume-selling M-class, the V6 ML320, also rises $1000 for MY2002 and now has a $68,900 pricetag - significantly undercutting BMW's 3.0-litre, six-cylinder X5. Sold here since the ML's appearance in 1998, the ML320 continues with the same 3.2-litre V6 seen in the C320, E320, S320, SLK320 and CLK320. In this case it produces 160kW and 310Nm, pushing the ML320 to 100km/h in 9.0 seconds and a top speed of 195km/h. Claimed average fuel consumption is 13.5L/100km.

At $98,500, the ML500 is about $3000 more expensive than the ML430 it replaces. It does, however, come with a new-generation 5.0-litre modular V8 lifted directly from the S500 and comprises the same 90-degree V-angle and three-valve cylinder-head technology as the V6. Like the 3.2, the V8 also meets strict EU-4 emission standards not due until 2005.

Producing a spirited 215kW at 5600rpm and 440Nm of torque at 2700rpm, the new engine drops the base M-class V8's 0-100km/h acceleration from 8.4 to just 7.7 seconds. A direct rival for the $107,850 X5 V8, the ML500 also has a top speed of 222km/h and average claimed fuel consumption of 14.6L/100km.

Finally, as AMG's top-seller in Australia with more than 180 sold since its January, 2001, release, the range-topping ML55 AMG is the least changed of the 2002 ML models but comes with the same $139,900 pricetag.

Of course, BMW's forthcoming X5 range-topper, the 4.6is, will provide stiff competition for the ML55, as will Porsche's performance-orientated Cayenne SUV, while BMW also recently confirmed it will introduce a turbo-diesel version of the X5 in early 2003 called the X5 3.0d, after a new national fuel standard is introduced.

M-class pricing:
ML270 CDI $65,900
ML320 $68.900
ML500 $98,500
ML55 $139,900"Luxury" design and equipment package (ML270 and ML320 only) $6000

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

MERCEDES-BENZ officials are quick to point out the off-road durability and wheel/suspension articulation advantages afforded by the ML's body-over-chassis construction, as opposed to many of its unibody, monocoque-based rivals.

A large part of an interesting off-road drive loop at the army's Monageeta proving ground in Victoria showcased the facelifted M-class's ability to traverse deeply potholed terrain without bottoming or rolling over, while steep inclines displayed the operation of functions like Hill Hold, Hill Descent Control and Electronic Stability Control.

Minor suspension improvements also seem to have dulled some of the "jiggly" cornering characteristics that hamper the M-class's on-road performance relative to its more road-orientated off-roaders. So what at first seems simply a visual makeover actually represents big advances in safety, equipment and dynamics, as well as styling.

The M-class remains a luxuriously equipped European soft-roader with accomplished off-road credentials, at the expense of on-road agility and outright cornering ability.

In facelifted guise it represents even better value, but perhaps the value pick of the 2002 M-class range is the new ML500, which now has 5.0-litre V8 performance for under $100,000.

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