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DIAL M FOR MAGIC


Mercedes-Benz's has finally created the kind of M-Class luxury SUV we all knew it was capable of. Jonathan Crouch drives it

Ten Second Review

Mercedes' third generation M-Class demonstrates that the big SUV can still be a responsible choice - and a lot more besides. Beautifully made, quietly capable and state of the art in every conceivable way, it's good enough to redefine the way we look at the luxury 4x4.

Background

Think of all the reasons not to like a large, luxury SUV 4x4. Thirst. Poor performance. Huge tax liabilities. Wobbly handling. Yet middle class motorists still love them, patiently sure perhaps that one day, the brands involved would bring us something better. Something like this - the third generation Mercedes M-Class.
This has long been the world's most popular luxury 4x4, with over 1.2 million examples sold since its original launch back in 1997, paving a path that other plush SUVs - BMW's X5, Volvo's XC90 and Audi's Q7 - would quickly follow. And improve upon. Initially, that wasn't difficult for the first generation version of this car was a bit of an embarrassment but Mercedes quickly sorted things out with a second generation 2005 model much closer in quality to what we expect from the Three-Pointed Star.
You still couldn't have called it a class leader though, the car being neither sharp enough on-road or capable enough off it for that. It's successor though, this MK3 W166 model launched here in the Spring of 2012, can be specified to satisfy buyers of either preference, all the while delivering running cost returns impressive enough to leave rivals questioning their Vorsprung Durch Teknic or wondering on the Efficiency of their Dynamics. In short, on paper at least, it sounds as if Mercedes has finally established what an M-Class should be. But does that mean you should buy one? Let's find out.

Driving Experience

With this M-Class, all the engineering might of Mercedes has been directed at creating something remarkable. Hence the segment's first four cylinder diesel, developed with or without hybrid technology. And improvements in engine efficiency so astonishing that they allow the AMG range-topping 525bhp petrol V8 to approach the running cost returns of the previous generation model's 3.0-litre V6 diesel.
I've talked of two extremes here, the 204bhp ML250 BlueTEC diesel model that props up the range and the fearsome 5.5-litre bi-turbo ML63 AMG V8 petrol flagship variant that completes it. Between them lies the model we tried, the one likely to prove most popular, the ML350 BlueTEC. It's a diesel of course - virtually everything that sells in any numbers in this sector is - with an updated version of the 3.0 V6 CDI unit seen in the old model, now massaged up to 258bhp. That's enough to spirit you from rest to 62mph in an agreeably rapid 7.4s, a second and a half quicker than the entry-level variant, on the way to an academic maximum speed of 139mph. For the record, the ML63 AMG flagship can spirit itself to 62mph in just 4.8s and can carry on until it must be reined back at an artificially limited 155mph.
Refinement is superb and the 7G-TRONIC Plus 7-speed auto gearbox elegantly smooth. Adaptive Damping adjusts the ride based on the type of driving you're doing and the optional AirMATIC suspension creates magic carpet suppleness. Should you want a luxury SUV that can defy the laws of physics and fly through the twisty stuff, then you'll want to tick the box for the 'ACTIVE CURVE SYSTEM'. It's an active roll stabilisation system much like Porsche's PDCC set-up and works just as well, enabling the car to remain eerily immune to the violent bodyroll and scrabbling understeer you'd normally expect when powering something this big and heavy through a really tight turns. For off roaders, there's an optional ON&OFFROAD package that includes low ratio gears, a higher ride height and underbody protection.

Design and Build

Visually, you'd recognise this as an M-Class, were you to be at all familiar with this type of Mercedes, but you'd probably agree it to be a rather different one, longer, wider and lower than before with a more strident and powerful look replacing the previous gentle curves.
At the back, there's a three-piece spoiler fitted to the standard Easy-Pack powered tailgate which raises to reveal a decently spacious 690-litre boot that's bigger than SUVs like BMW's X5 and Porsche's Cayenne can provide.
Up-front, as you'd expect from a Mercedes - and want for this kind of money - it's all very elegant indeed, the atmosphere pitched somewhere between the art deco elegance of a Range Rover and the subtle sportiness of a BMW X5. As the driver, you position yourself behind a lovely leather-stitched four-spoke multifunction steering wheel that has no fewer than twelve control buttons for the trip computer, the radio and the telephone. I like the revised positioning of the multi-function indicator stalk, now moved further up the steering column so that it's easier to operate. Dominating the centre of the stitched leather dash is the large colour screen for the infotainment system linked to a metal controller on the centre console.

Market and Model

M-Class pricing sees asking figures in the £45,000 to £50,000 bracket for the two diesel models, while you'll need a budget of around £85,000 for the ML63 AMG. All versions of this car come with smart AMG alloy wheels of at least 19-inch in size, a tyre pressure warning system, metallic paint, aluminium roof rails, auto headlamps and wipers, an 'Active Park Assist' system that measures spaces and steers you into them, an AMG bodykit, rear privacy glass, a powered tailgate, sports seats trimmed in artificial 'Artico' leather with power adjustment, the 7G-TRONIC plus 7-speed automatic gearbox, Bluetooth compatibility for your mobile 'phone, satellite navigation, a sports steering wheel, a high quality 'Audio 20' stereo system, automatic climate control and Hill Start Assist to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions.
Beyond that, it's a question of deciding exactly what kind of car you want your M-Class to be, then selecting an appropriate options pack to suit. If it's mainly likely to function as a luxury saloon, then you'll want to find just under £2,000 for the AirMATIC suspension. If,on the other hand, you're the kind of driver who occasionally likes to push on a bit, then it might be worth finding just over £3,000 for the Active Curve System with its active anti-roll bars that compensate for body roll through the bends. This is optional only on the ML350 but standard of course on the AMG model. At the other extreme, you might be one of the minority of buyers likely to serious take your M-Class off road. If so, then it's essentially that you find another couple of thousand for the 'On and Off Road Package' which primes the car for the rough stuff with special off-road gear ratios and differential locks on both axles and in the centre.

Cost of Ownership

To make doubly sure of running cost return supremacy in the luxury SUV segment, Mercedes took the almost unprecedented step of fitting a four cylinder engine to a car of this kind, so in entry-level form, the previous 3.0-litre V6 CDI diesel of the MK2 M-Class has been replaced by a 2.1-litre BlueTEC diesel that, thanks to clever two-stage turbocharging, is almost as fast but far more cost-effective to run. So emissions improve from a smoky 240g/km to just 165g/km, while combined cycle fuel consumption improves from under 30mpg to nearly 45mpg.
That's better than a much smaller SUV - say a 2.0-litre diesel automatic Ford Kuga - and pretty close to the kind of returns that Lexus' RX450h needs a complicated hybrid petrol/electric drive system to achieve, something that Mercedes has also developed for this particular variant. But even in standard diesel form, an ML250 BlueTEC will save you plenty over obvious competitors thanks to a VED tax banding of G, three better than J-banded rivals like the Range Rover Sport 3.0 TDV6. It also means that with the optional larger 93-litre fuel tank fitted, this car can go for almost 950 miles between fill-ups.
The improvements wrought to the ML350 BlueTEC variant aren't quite as staggering as that - this model does, after all, still have a 3.0-litre V6 diesel under the bonnet. Even so, it's 39.2mpg and 189g/km showing is unbeaten in this segment. Equally noteworthy are the stats delivered by the ML63 AMG. A combined cycle figure of 23.9mpg and a CO2 return of 276g/km may not sound much but these are previously unheard of figures for a heavy petrol-powered luxury SUV with well over 500bhp.

Summary

It's time to reassess the Mercedes M-Class. First, what it won't do: stride across the Gobi desert quite like a Range Rover Sport. Or power round Brands Hatch quite like a BMW X5. But that's not a problem: this car, after all, intentionally sets out to offer more of a middle ground between these two extremes and it's a place in which this third generation model now feels far more comfortable. Specify it for off road use and it'll deliver mud-plugging prowess expert enough to suit any right-minded user. Tick the box for the AirMATIC suspension and it rides like a Rolls Royce. Or specify the Active Curve System and make it corner like a grown-up hot hatch.
All these things are possible from a car that shows just how far the modern luxury SUV has come - not least in its eco-friendliness. Mercedes has set the standard when it comes to running cost efficiency for this kind of car and it's one that'll cause plenty of head-scratching amongst the brand's closest rivals. There are sportier, more dynamic-looking models of this kind you could buy. But I'm struggling to think of a better all-round package. Refined, practical and luxurious, this car is at last a benchmark among its peers.

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