The Mercedes-Benz M-Class, South Africa's top-selling snooty SUV, has been substantially upgraded so that it looks prettier, feels classier and is now even safer, considerably less thirsty and more fun to drive.
The ML feels solid and secure even when driven fairly hard on twisting side roads.
Already more than 15 000 of these classy German tar and dirt warriors have been sold in this country and with the new third-generation vehicle now rolling on to dealer showroom floors the popularity of this permanent all-wheel drive status symbol is going to increase even further amongst the well-heeled.
At the recent media introduction I drove two of the new models, the ML 350 Blue TEC and the ML250 Blue TEC on a long stretch of tar from OR Tambo to the Entabeni Safari Conservancy in the Waterberg region. During our stay at the Legend Gold and Safari Resort there I also drove the vehicles briefly on unchallenging bush roads. Like the previous generation this ML always surprises and pleases with the easy way it handles the dirt and dust and its über-classy tar skimming.
Big, solid - and living quarters in a new bracket
What makes the new models now even more impressive is the noticeable improvement in dynamics. For such a big vehicle the ML feels solid and secure even when driven fairly hard on twisting side roads. There is no disturbing lean and the steering is a lot more direct than one would expect from such a big chunk of metal.
Merc cabins have always been classy but the platinum-class elegance of the latest ML's living quarters puts it into the same bracket as an expensive saloon. Clearly the Mercedes white coats spent a lot of time on improving what they call the "NVH comfort level" (noise, vibration, harshness). The ML simply purrs along, even at a fair rate of knots, thanks to tweaks to the drive system, chassis, aero-acoustic levels and insulation.
Large disk brakes ensure a safe but rapid stop.
Cabin space has also been stretched so that it gives an extra 34mm of elbow space in the front and 25mm more at the rear. The dash lay-out is both functional and attractive and the electrically adjustable seats are big and comfortable and the rear backrests can even be individually adjusted.
A barn-like boot offers floor to ceiling space of 2010 litres which is more than enough to ensure that the seating area is free of baggage and parcels, even on a long journey with four occupants.
The ambience is further enhanced by a concert class sound system made up of a radio with twin-tuner, a colour display with a 14.7 cm screen diagonal, an MP3/WMA/AAC-compatible CD player with 6-disc CD, a USB interface with CD Cover Art display (if saved on the storage medium), an AUX-IN socket in the centre armrest and a telephone keypad. The Bluetooth interface also allows hands-free telephony and audio streaming for the transfer of music.
Optional extras for Africa
Typical of the expensive German cars the new Merc has a mile-long list of optional extras, including a COMAND (and yes - this is the way Mercedes spells it) Online multimedia system with a high-resolution 17.8cm colour display and internet access on which occupants can either browse freely when the vehicle is at a standstill or use a Mercedes-Benz App with pages that load extremely quickly and are also easy to use when the vehicle is on the move.
The latest ML range consist of one ML 250 model, two ML 350 variants, an ML 500 and in a few months time an ML 63 AMG. As is the trend these days much emphasis has been placed on reducing fuel usage and emissions across the range and the latest models consume between 23 and 28% less fuel than the outgoing model.
As with any Mercedes, the living quarters lack for nothing.
The new ML 250 BlueTEC 4MATIC claims a combined cycle usage of 6.5 litres/100km and emissions of just 165g/km and is extremely travel friendly with a range of up to 1500km on a full tank. It is powered by a thrifty four-cylinder engine that produces 150kW and 500Nm.
The ML 350 BlueTEC 4MATIC is powered by a 3-litre V6 that churns out 190kW and 620Nm and Merc claims fuel consumption of 7.4 litres/100km (which is 24% better than the previous model).
The ML 350 4MATIC V6 petrol engine produces 225kW and 370Nm of torque and has a combined fuel consumption of 8.8 litres/100km.
The ML 500 has all the blasting power of a V8 direct injection engine that kicks out 300kW and 600Nm of torque. CO2 emissions on this powerful V8 engine are 287g/km.
And the top of the range...
The top-of-the range model for the M-Class, the class-leading ML 63 AMG, is fitted with the V8 engine that delivers 386kW and 700Nm while keeping emissions down to 276g/km.
The ML 250 Blue TEC model can be jazzed up to the tune of R114 800.
Fuel economy across the range is achieved through BlueEFFICIENCY measures which include a new seven-speed 7G/TRONIC PLUS automatic transmission with many technical tweaks and characteristics all playing their role in keeping fuel bills down.
All the new ML's are also equipped with extensive off-road features as standard, including 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive, 4ETS electronic traction control and an off-road button which activates a special off-road driving mode. Furthermore, the start-off assist system makes hill starts easier, while the Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR) automatically keeps the M Class at the speed set via the cruise control stalk.
Stifle that yawn - it's actually worth reading
Health Warning: Unless you wear an anorak, earn your income from being a Mercedes-Benz auto technician or are studying for a doctorate in auto techno-wizardry, reading the rest of this article may lead to drowsiness, lack of concentration, boredom and yawning!
The optional ON&OFFROAD package for the new M-Class has six driving modes for optimising driving dynamics and handling safety, for both on- and off-road conditions. The driver can select from one automatic mode, two special off-road modes and three on-road modes using a rotary control in the centre console.
The driver can select from one automatic mode, two special off-road modes and three on-road modes using a rotary control in the centre console.
In terms of "hardware", the ON&OFFROAD package comprises an underguard, a two-stage transfer case with reduction gear, an inter-axle differential lock and enhanced AIRMATIC functionality that allows a maximum ground clearance of 285mm as well as a fording depth of 600mm.
Active roll stabilisation in the form of the ACTIVE CURVE SYSTEM can be optionally combined with both the AIRMATIC air suspension with Adaptive Damping System (ADS) and the ON&OFFROAD package. This system uses active anti-roll bars on the front and rear axles and compensates for the roll angle of the body through bends, increasing agility and driving pleasure in the process. It also increases handling stability, particularly at higher speeds. It also makes off-road driving more comfortable.
Safety first, ja!
As always with the three-pointed star, high importance is placed on occupant safety in the new ML which has a toughened cabin structure, airbags aplenty, plus active safety systems such as the Brake Assist (BAS) or the optional BAS PLUS, which can help to prevent an accident or reduce the severity of an accident.
There's more than ample storage space.
Both active safety and driver-fitness safety in the new M-Class are further improved by assistance systems that are already installed in the S- and E-Class Mercs. These include a drowsiness detection system ATTENTION ASSIST, the anticipatory safety system PRE SAFE and a tyre pressure loss warning system, as well as adaptive brake lights and Brake Assist (BAS). Active assistance systems such as Active Lane.
Keeping Assist and Active Blind Spot Assist are available as additional equipment options.
The optional equipment list is long and expensive. For example the ML 250 Blue TEC model can be jazzed up to the tune of R114 800 - that is if you want things such as metallic paint, leather seats, privacy glass, heated front seats fancy 19-inch alloys, sunroof and the all the rest...
If you are still with us, the ultimate short summary of the ML is: Even bog standard the new ML is a super classy SUV and it is easy to understand why this model has dominated its segment of the market for so long... it is truly a classy carriage, fit for royalty.
The models and prices (which include a six-year/120 000km maintenance plan, are:
Bizcommunity.com motoring editor Henrie Geyser () has worked as a journalist in Cape Town, London and Windhoek for the Argus Company (now Independent Newspapers) and spent 12 years at The Cape Argus in Cape Town. He then owned and ran a public relations consultancy for 13 years. He joined the online publishing industry through iafrica.com, where he worked for five years as news editor and editor. He now freelances for a variety of print and online publications, on the subjects of cars, food and travel, among others; and is a member of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.
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