The M-class’s biggest change is the switch from a ladder frame to a monocoque chassis – a move prompted by drivers less concerned with off-road prowess and more with on-road comfort and dynamics.
The chassis sits on a new, more road-friendly suspension layout, with double wishbones at the front and a complex four-link set-up out back.
Buyers will have a choice of three engines. The entry-level petrol, the 272bhp 3.5-litre V6, is topped by the flagship 306bhp 5.0-litre V8. The 224bhp 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel will be followed in 2006 by a detuned 190bhp version of the same engine.
Naturally, all powerplants are Euro IV compliant, with particulate filters an option on the diesels. The ML line-up is fitted with Mercedes-Benz advanced 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, which permanently splits torque equally between front and rear axle. UK drivers will also have the choice of standard steel or optional air-sprung suspension.
Despite growing in all directions – 150mm longer (now 4,780mm) 71mm wider (now 1,911mm) and 5mm lower (now 1,815mm with roof rails) – the big Mercedes-Benz looks far more aggressive and athletic. This is helped by its long 2,915mm wheelbase, a massive 95mm increase, and its rakish windscreen angle.
And yet model for model, the new ML is 50kg lighter than the outgoing range, because of the switch to car-like monocoque construction.
For a striking and confident-looking off-roader, the new M-class certainly looks the part. Its toothy grille, liberal touches of chrome and substantial cladding may not appeal to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying its powerful and confident presence.
And it has a very American look to it – no surprise given it will be built by Americans at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama – and America will be its biggest market.
After a long hiatus, it appears that Mercedes-Benz build quality is back. The ML’s button-laden cabin feels bank-vault solid, and there’s an air of substance to all the driver touch-points. Only a few minor controls on the centre console that are made of hard shiny plastic and the overly enthusiastic sprinkling of chrome spoil the internal ambience. It’s spacious too.
Moving the gear lever from the central tunnel to the steering column has freed up more space. Carrying a pair of six-footers in the back is a cinch, but the third rear passenger won’t be as comfortable, perched over the transmission tunnel. The flat-floored boot is huge and can be further extended by flipping the rear seats forward.
The biggest shortcoming for Mercedes-Benz is that, unlike the new Discovery, there is no seven-seat option on offer, something likely to put off a number of family-oriented user choosers.
But Stuttgart is hoping its new crossover six-seater R-class that arrives later this year will offer greater versatility, and a long-wheelbase ML is also expected.
The M-class will come filled to the brim with active and passive safety features. Expect at least 10 airbags, the usual sophisticated electronic parking, skid and stability controls, as well as the option of the Pre-Safe system first seen in the S-class. This uses ABS and ESP sensors to determine if the car is going to crash and pulls the seatbelts taut, the sunroof is closed and the electric seats are optimally positioned to benefit from the airbag protection. Active Neck-Pro head restraints are also an optional extra.
The new M-class is also going to be expensive. Despite its enhanced luxury and safety levels, prices are expected to climb by at least 10%, which means access to the ML club will cost at least £35,000. Steep. And that’s before you start ticking the long list of optional extras.
Mercedes-Benz’s sales aspirations are modest – in 2006, its first full year on sale, the company expects to shift 5,000 MLs.
The upper echelon user-chooser fleet market will account for about 28% of sales – about the same as the outgoing model.
It may not be good enough to challenge for class honours, but the ML’s high-profile image and solid residuals will see it sit at the top of many a company car wish list.
MERCEDES-BENZ M-CLASS FACT FILE
|Max power (bhp/rpm)||224/4000||268/5750||300/5600|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm)||376/1600||258/2500||339/2700|
|Max speed (mph)||133mph||140mph||149mph|
|Fuel consumption (mpg)||29.4||24.4||21.1|
|CO2 emissions (g/km)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Fuel tanks capacity (l/gal)||95/21||95/21||95/21|
|Service intervals (miles)||Variable||Variable||Variable|
|Price (OTR)||£35,000 (est)||£37,500 (est)||£50,000 (est)|
BEHIND THE WHEEL
WE drove all three new engines, so let’s start with the entry-level ML350 petrol. This is the same engine used in the C-class and will make its way into the E-class later this year. Despite having 272bhp and 258lb-ft of torque – enough to turn the C-class into a real rocket – the V6 has to be worked hard in the mid-range when overtaking and tackling inclines.
This, as you can imagine, impacts heavily on economy. Even after some moderate driving over our test route, consumption dropped to 18mpg, well below the claimed combined 24mpg figure. And while it’s a smooth engine that is keen to rev, it’s also a pretty vocal unit, filling the cabin with its crisp exhaust note when extended.
The big ML500 feels significantly quicker and far more relaxed when working quickly – hardly a surprise given its deep 339lb-ft torque reservoir. Delivering plenty of mid-range shove, accompanied by a deep burbling exhaust note, the V8 always feels muscular and swift. It’s very thirsty, though. In everyday driving, you’ll be hard-pressed to get anything above 17mpg.
Time now for the 320 CDI diesel. And what a superb engine it is – smooth, quiet and with plenty of punch to effortlessly haul the big car along. Step-off is particularly impressive for a diesel – it’s sharp and instant, making quick exits from junctions a breeze.
With a huge 376lb-ft of torque on tap, mid-range acceleration is excellent, the common-rail V6 responding immediately to the smallest of throttle inputs, easily rocketing the ML past slower traffic and up inclines. And even after a day of enthusiastic driving, fuel economy was a more palatable 27mpg.
The engines are complemented by Mercedes-Benz’s slick and intuitive seven-speed transmission that always seems to be in the right gear at the right time.
Body control is also top drawer. Mercedes-Benz engineers have also done a fine job of disguising the ML’s weight and size. Even on the most demanding of roads, it feels taut and cohesive.
For such a large and heavy car – although one still significantly lighter and smaller than the new Discovery – the M-class displays a surprising amount of poise. But it’s still not as quick-witted or as engaging as a BMW X5. When you really start to push hard, arguably harder than most of its suburban drivers will ever drive it, it feels flustered and bulky.
The steering is light enough at low speeds to make urban work a doddle while still feeling chunky and direct at higher speeds. On its optional air-sprung Airmatic suspension – expected to cost about £1,200 and well worth the money – the ML is smooth and hushed, calmly sponging away the majority of intrusions. Even small ripples and ruts, the downfall of many air-sprung cars, are effectively smoothed over.
The move to a monocoque chassis hasn’t stopped Mercedes-Benz engineers from making the ML a very effective off-roader. While its all-wheel-drive system, air-sprung adjustable ride height and downhill speed regulation will be more than enough for most driver’s greenlaning demands, the optional Off-Road Pro system (expected to cost around £1,200) adds reinforced underbody protection trays, a two-speed transfer case, a pair of diff locks and additional ground-clearance transforming the Mercedes into a formidable mudplugger.
It also adds start-off assist, to prevent you rolling backwards or forwards when pulling away. And the increased 291mm ground clearance means you can tackle water that’s two feet deep. Mercedes reckons the 320 CDI – and the 280 CDI that arrives early next year – will account for about 80% of total ML sales in the UK.
NO prizes for guessing which is the pick of the range. The 320 CDI is impressive enough to the make its petrol stablemates look slow, thirsty and expensive by comparison.