Mercedes-Benz ML: Launch Review

words - Marton Pettendy
Benz throws a cat among the luxury SUV pigeons as new ML250 spearheads MkIII M-Class range

Mercedes-Benz ML250 CDI and 350 CDI

Local Launch
Torquay, Victoria

What we liked
>> Outstanding price/value
>> Low (diesel) fuel consumption
>> Impeccable refinement

Not so much
>> Low-speed diesel drumming
>> Firm ride induces head-shake
>> Still no third-row seats


OVERVIEW
>> New cut-price four-cylinder M-Class diesel to cover for AWOL GLK
With the next-generation GLK and an even smaller new SUV still at least two years away from Australia, Mercedes-Benz still has no answer for many of the nation’s top-selling models in the booming luxury SUV sector, including the X1 and X3 from BMW and the Q3 and Q5 from its other German arch-rival, Audi.

To compensate, Mercedes-Benz Australia has introduced the third-generation W166-series M-Class range with a bargain-basement starting price of $81,400 plus on-road costs, making the new ML250 BlueTEC diesel – the first four-cylinder ML - $4380 cheaper than the old six-cylinder ML300 CDI it replaces at the bottom of the M-Class range.

Now available nationally alongside the new ML350 BlueTec six-cylinder, the ML250 BlueTec will be joined in local showrooms within weeks by the 3.5-litre V6 petrol-powered ML350 BlueEfficiency, which costs from $99,900 — the same price as the ML350 BlueTec — and the range-topping ML63 AMG (from $177,900), which packs Mercedes-AMG’s blistering 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8.

Completing the new M-Class range around October will be the MkIII ML500, which is powered by a new 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 and — at $119,900 plus ORCs — will undercut BMW’s equivalent 4.4-litre X5 xDrive50i Sport ($134,000) by more than $14,000.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
>> New base ML250 is no stripper
Despite its attractive pricetag, the new ML250 does not skimp on safety or equipment. Standard features include nine airbags, stability/traction control, Attention Assist drowsiness detection, 19-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, selective damping, a reversing camera, Parktronic including reversing guidance, the COMAND APS infotainment system including a single CD/DVD slot, a 40GB hard-disc drive with 10GB for music, faux-leather Artico seat trim, a central 17.8cm hi-res colour screen, Nappa leather steering wheel with shift paddles, Bluetooth audio streaming, an electric parking brake, electric power steering and Active Parking Assist self-parking function.

For an extra $18,500, the ML350 diesel gains full leather upholstery, Artico dash trim, 20-inch 10-spoke alloys, Light Package and Driver Assistance package PLUS, but the bargain of the new M-Class range could well be the base ML250 BlueTec with Exclusive Package, which for $92,300 ($7600 less than the ML350 diesel) adds 21-inch AMG five twin-spoke alloys, Airmatic suspension, an AMG Exterior Sports body kit, memory, package, mirror package, heated front seats and privacy glass.

While the ML350 BlueTec diesel comes with an identical equipment list to the ML350 BlueEfficiency petrol, further upstream the ML500 offers 20-inch AMG five-spoke alloys, Airmatic suspension, Active Curve System (comprising active swaybars), an Easy-Pack powered tailgate, electric glass sunroof, Keyless Go entry/starting and metallic paint.

Apart from its larger, more powerful and more efficient V8 and seven-speed AMG Speedshift Plus transmission, the top-shelf ML63 AMG adds 21-inch five twin-spoke alloys, AMG sports suspension, a twin-outlet chromed AMG exhaust system, AMG body kit including specific front quarter guards with ‘V8 BITURBO’ lettering, AMG brakes, AMG instruments, AMG four-spoke leather steering wheel, heated and ventilated AMG sports front seats, a Harman Kardon Logic7 surround-sound system, illuminated front door sills, dark-tinted privacy glass, TV tuner, Thermatronic climate control, stainless steel pedals, black Nappa leather armrest and door trims, dark graphite poplar wood trim, Dinamica microfibre headlining and Designo floor mats. The ML63 AMG undercuts its direct BMW rival – the $178,200 X5 xDrive M – by $300.

Among a host of optional extras is a $2500 Vision package for the ML250, which is standard on the ML500/63 and includes a sunroof and Easy-Pack tailgate and the $4000 Convenience Pack (standard on ML500/63) including sunroof, Easy-Pack and Keyless Go. From October, the AMG’s body kit and wheels (plus Airmatic suspension) will be available across the range for $6900 ($4200 for ML500 buyers).

Once again an off-road pack will be available for the M-Class (63 AMG excluded) comprising low-range gearing, a 100 per cent centre differential lock, underbody reinforcements including a sump guard, revised stability/braking control systems and six selectable drive modes (but no full-size spare; a space-saver remains standard across the range, with dealers expected to offer full-size spare wheel/tyre solutions).


MECHANICAL
>> All change for new M-Class engines
First seen in 2008 and also fitted to the C-Class and E-Class, the new ML250 BlueTec’s 2.1-litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine produces the same 150kW of power and 500Nm of torque , like all M-Class diesels and the ML63 AMG, comes standard with a fuel-saving idle-stop system. Like all M-Class models, it is matched with Mercedes’ seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic transmission and permanent 4Matic all-wheel drive.

Despite weighing some 2130kg (35kg less than before, thanks in part to the fitment of an aluminium bonnet and front wings), the ML250 returns small car-like diesel fuel consumption of just 6.4 litres per 100km, making it 30 per cent more efficient than both a Toyota Corolla and the ML300 CDI six (9.2L/100km) it replaces, equating to a fuel tank range of at least 1450km.

And despite emitting 168 grams of CO2 per kilometre (down from the ML300 CDI’s 249g/km) and meeting tough new Euro 6 emissions standards not due in Europe until 2014, the ML250 offers the same power output as the previous M-Class opener (150kW at a slightly higher 4200rpm) and identical peak torque of 500Nm, albeit over a narrow 1600-1800rpm speed range.

The ML350 BlueTec, meantime, achieves a 23 per cent efficiency reduction, from 9.5 to 7.3L/100km, via its revised 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6, which now produces 190kW and some 620Nm, while the ML350 BlueEfficiency also employs a revised V6; this time Benz’s trusty 3.5-litre direct-injection petrol six, which now delivers 225kW/370Nm and returns 8.9L/100km – down from 11.5L1/00km.

The new ML500 is only marginally more efficient than before – and like the ML350 petrol lacks stop-start - at 12.3L/100km but now packs a 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 delivering 300kW/600Nm, while the ML63 AMG actually consumes less petrol at 11.8L/100km – despite packing some 386kW/700Nm from its twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8. However, while the ML350 and ML500 require 95 RON premium unleaded, the AMG drinks 98 RON. Overall, Mercedes says the new ML is 25 per cent more efficient than the 164-series it replaces.

All new M-Class models offer an unbraked towing capacity of 700kg (3265kg braked) except for the ML250, which can tow 3000kg. Unlike in Europe, all Australian M-Class models will come with a 93-litre fuel tank, while both V8 models come standard with air springs.


PACKAGING
>> New M looks smaller, but grows slightly
Despite looking smaller than its predecessor, the new M rides on the same 2915mm wheelbase and is narrowly larger at 4804mm long (up23mm) and 1926mm wide (up 15mm), as well as being slightly slipperier with a drag co-efficient of 0.32Cd (down 0.02Cd).

Interestingly, unlike the previous M-Class, it has also been engineered to accommodate a third row of seats, which is expected to become an option globally soon, giving the larger seven-seat GL-Class – which will itself be renewed next year – one less point of differentiation.


SAFETY
>> Outstanding standard safety kit, backed by cutting-edge options
No less than nine airbags (including full-length window bags and a driver’s knee airbag) are standard across the new M-Class range, along with electronic stability/traction control, LED daytime running lights, Pre-Safe collision preparation, adaptive brake lights, an active bonnet (not on ML63 AMG), rain-sensing wipers, Hill Start Assist and Downhill Speed Regulation.

There are some optional safety items, however, including tyre pressure monitoring ($850 for non-V8 models), Night View Assist Plus night vision ($3500), for which ML250 buyers will also need to purchase the $2000 Light Package comprising bi-Xenon headlights, and  Driving Assistance package PLUS, which is standard on all but the ML250 ($4900) and comprises Distronic radar cruise control, Pre-Safe collision preparation with brake function, Brake Assist Plus and active blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems.


COMPETITORS
>> New ML has X5 and Q7 directly in its sights
The ML250 BlueTec breaks new ground as the only four-cylinder full-size luxury SUV and it’s likely at least BMW will eventually follow suit with a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol and/or diesel X5 to slot beneath its all-six and eight-cylinder SUV range.

Costing about $6500 more than flagship versions of the smaller X3 and Q5, the ML250 undercuts its most direct competitors by about $10,000, with BMW’s cheapest X5 (the $92,100 xDrive30d) priced $10,700 higher and Audi’s $90,500 Q7 3.0 TDI costing $9100 more.

 

ON THE ROAD
>> Number of cylinders irrelevant, says Benz
Mercedes says that few of those who buy it will know or care that the new ML250 BlueTec is ‘just’ a four-cylinder and, after two days of thorough testing on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and all manner of roads between Melbourne and Bass Strait, we’re inclined to agree.

No, the 2.1-litre ML250 doesn’t offer the same creamy wave of torque at all roads speeds as the 3.0-litre ML350 BlueTec, its slightly narrower peak torque band making the silky-smooth seven-speed auto a little busier around town and during highway overtaking manoeuvres. And yes, there’s more diesel ‘drumming’ around the 1500rpm mark as the four-pot makes its presence felt at low engine speeds.

But just as it does in the C-Class and E-Class – despite hauling around almost 600kg of extra bulk than the former – Merc’s brilliant little twin-turbo diesel four delivers satisfying performance in the classy new M-Class, which makes such significant strides in refinement that it’s diesel clatter is virtually inaudible with the windows up.

Indeed, despite giving almost a litre of displacement away to the old ML300 CDI, the new ML250 feels quicker and quieter, and there’s no denying its fuel-sipping ability, thanks in part to one of the most intuitive idle-stop systems we’ve ever sampled. To prove it, we averaged less than 7.0L/100km during the final day’s hard drive from Torquay to Apollo Bay then Melbourne via Colac, which is outstanding for a 2.1-plus tonne vehicle capable of transporting five adults and their luggage in supreme comfort.

Ride quality was also exemplary in both the ML250 and 350 diesels on the GOR’s patchier surfaces, dispensing with mid-corner corrugations like they didn’t exist – despite being fitted with optional 20-inch rubber and standard steel springs that resisted body roll with aplomb. The combination offered almost sportscar-like levels of grip, but the trade-off was pronounced ‘head-shake’ as the big SUV did its best to defy the laws of physics when pushed too hard into bumpy tightening turns.

The new ML’s electric steering could feel overly light to some and certainly feels less sporty than the tiller in the X5, which along with Porsche’s Cayenne continues to set the dynamic benchmark for large luxury SUVs. But given the new M-Class’s stand-out design, refinement and efficiency, and the all-new ML250’s extraordinary value, only the lack of a third-row seat prevents it from being the best all-rounder in its class.


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Published : Tuesday, 8 May 2012
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