It’s a feeling Mercedes-Benz has had to deal with for a number of years. It launched the M-class into a premium SUV market nominally only occupied by Range Rover in 1998, two years before BMW and Lexus, five before Volkswagen, and eight before Audi.
As a result, the first M-class was old before its time. When BMW followed suit two years later it became apparent very quickly that the big Merc was soft, lumpy and poor to drive. It still had the caché in the leafier areas of Surrey, but Mercedes-Benz realised that its replacement had to be an altogether sharper effort.
Bigger on the inside and out, with a 224bhp 320 CDI engine, seven-speed automatic transmission, 19-inch alloys, and figure hugging seats, the Sport version certainly has more purpose about it.
But the conundrum for drivers with SUVs, and it is readily apparent in the M-class, is that you are divorced from what is going on outside. This is a good thing if you like to drive in a self-contained bubble, immune from the horrors of the outside world, but can be unsettling if you like to feel the road beneath your wheels.
Even though the new car is considerably better to drive than the old one, the steering still feels heavy, while the suspension has a tendency to be firm and unyielding over small ruts and bumps – and then feel soft and long traveling over larger ones.
Mercedes-Benz executives have been claiming for the past 12 months that the firm is rediscovering the high levels of build quality it had years ago. When the original M-class came out, it was the first Mercedes-Benz to signal a change to cheaper interior materials and it shocked more than a few people.
Put simplistically, it was a car designed for the American market, where interior quality ranks behind the size of the cupholders and how soft the seats are in buyers’ preferences. The new car is certainly better, although some of the plastics used, especially on the doors and across the top of the dashboard, feel hard and cheap, and you certainly would not get such a low standard on an Audi, Lexus or BMW these days.
It does, however, have a rather well-designed steely corporate black, silver and grey interior style.
The same assertive, no nonsense style goes for the exterior as well. There’s no appeasement of the anti-SUV lobby here through fluffy design. The M-class looks angry and built for the cut-and-thrust of the city – its multi-razor grille, scowling lights and sharp creases see to that.
In appearance, attitude and performance, the new M-class is much more the assertive, brassy vehicle the corporate buyer wants.
Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI Tiptronic
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £39,257
CO2 emissions (g/km): 260
BIK % of P11D in 2006: 35%
Graduated VED rate: £165
Insurance group: 17
Combined mpg: 28.8
CAP Monitor residual value: £17,975/46%
Depreciation 35.47 pence per mile x 60,000: £21,282
Maintenance 5.45 pence per mile x 60,000: £3,270
Fuel 14.91 pence per mile x 60,000: £8,946
Wholelife cost 55.83 pence per mile x 60,000: £33,498
Typical contract hire rate: £825
At a glance
We don’t like
Three rivals to consider
ALL these big diesel-powered SUV beasts are pitched at around £40,000, but do not expect that such a hefty price tag ensures sumptuous levels of luxury. Both the BMW and Volkswagen come with cloth seats as standard, while the other two are part-leather. The X5 is sparsely specced – would you expect it any other way for a BMW? – while the Range Rover is the most generously laden.
Range Rover £40,292
BMW aces this section, thanks mainly to its Service Inclusive package, which takes care of all basic servicing and maintenance costs for around £1,000. Its overall pence per mile figure of 3.50 means it isn’t exactly cheap at £2,100, but compared to the huge £3,270 bill for the M-class, it looks pretty appetising. These big brutes run on huge, costly 18 or 19-inch tyres and brake wear is also heavy, hence the large cheques that need to be written.
Range Rover 4.79ppm
IF drivers want to make the world a greener place, choosing one of these cars is not the place to start. BMW’s 3.0-litre unit offers the best fuel consumption, but even that only reaches 30.1mpg on the combined cycle. A fuel cost of more than £8,500 should be expected for 60,000 miles of motoring, while the ultra-heavy Touareg manages a poor 25.9mpg, equating to a total fuel bill of nearly £10,000. Range Rover Sport’s 2.7-litre unit does only 27.7mpg – and it’s not sportingly fast either.
Range Rover 15.56ppm
IN terms of predicted depreciation the X5 batters the opposition. Even being the oldest model here has made no difference. According to CAP, the X5 will retain 49% of its value over three years/60,000 miles. The new Range Rover Sport comes close at 48%, but its higher front-end price means that it loses more cash: £21,000 compared to the X5’s £20,400. The M-class’s performance is better than the old one at 46%, while the Touareg is off the pace at 42%.
Range Rover 34.90ppm
IT doesn’t take a genius to work out that the BMW comes top in wholelife cost terms. Its figure of 51.82ppm is miles ahead, meaning that if a driver does 60,000 miles in one, it will cost a fleet £31,000 in total. The Range Rover Sport comes a distant second, closely followed by the M-class. Both would rack up a bill of just over £33,000. The thirsty, heavier-depreciating Touareg can’t keep up and would cost £34,600.
Range Rover 55.25ppm
Emissions and BIK tax rates
IN tax terms, you have to be rich to run one of these. All are way past the highest 35% benefit-in-kind tax threshold in terms of emissions. A 40% taxpayer would have to find £5,383 a year for the cheapest, the Volkswagen Touareg, while the most expensive, the Range Rover Sport, would cost £5,640 a year in tax – that’s a staggering £470 a month.
Range Rover 271/km/35%
BIG premium SUVs are not necessarily bought for their frugality. In fact, when you look at them, conspicuous consumption seems to be a pre-requisite for ownership. In this sense the M-class delivers the goods. It looks fantastic, has real corporate presence and drives OK. But it is the X5 which most defines the Chelsea Tractor nickname, and it performs like the football team of the same swanky location. In image, costs and drivability it has the title all sewn up for another year.