By Samuel Ee
From its truck-like beginnings to its sleek new shape, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class is slowly advancing in terms of design and quality to become slightly less SUV and a bit more crossover.
The third-generation M-Class gets restrained but handsome looks with its sculpted body and sharper, more well-defined lines. Like its predecessor, this American-made Merc has a monocoque construction (the first M-Class had a body-on-frame chassis - like a pick-up).
The 4.8-metre-long M-Class remains roughly the same size despite increased overall dimensions. The new platform - similar to the Jeep Grand Cherokee's - has a marginally longer wheelbase of 2,915 mm.
Place one foot on the curved rubber-studded running board, step into the cabin and the M-Class immediately seems different - the sedan-like luxury and comfort from the S-Class and E-Class have made their way into the M.
There is Keyless-Go entry and ignition, while the door sill panels are illuminated with Mercedes-Benz lettering. Also standard are Active Parking Assist, Attention Assist drowsiness detection and ambient lighting in the door panels, with the latter available in three colours.
But the most perceptible difference in the roomy cabin with improved rear legroom is the level of quality and refinement. The materials used are also much better, and so are the fit and finish.
Two engines - mated to an enhanced 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles - are available to drive all four wheels.
The ML350 4Matic BlueEfficiency has a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine while the ML250 BlueTEC 4Matic has an inline four-cylinder turbodiesel.
With its new BlueDirect direct injection unit, the Mercedes-Benz ML350 touts a 25 per cent reduction in fuel consumption.
Carbon dioxide emissions are also lower at 206 g/km, thanks in part to a new intake and exhaust system as well as the lightweight construction.
The 306 hp and 370 Nm on tap help the 2,130 kg ML350 to avoid feeling cumbersome.
The handling of the all-wheel-drive M-Class is also more car-like. The Direct-Steer electric steering, which varies the steering ratio and assistance depending on the speed of the car, feels natural and there is better response in corners although body roll is noticeable as it is softly sprung.
The ML350 gets steel suspension with automatic damping as standard; Airmatic air suspension is a $6,200 option.
|Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueEfficiency
Engine: 3,498cc V6
Transmission: 6-speed tiptronic
Max Power: 306 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Max Torque: 370 Nm @ 3,500-5,250 rpm
0-100kmh: 7.6 secs
Top speed: 235 kmh
CO2 emissions: 199 - 206 g/km
Distributor: Distributor Cycle & Carriage 6866-1888
Certain road irregularities result in an unusual lateral but mild rocking motion but there is no denying that the ride is extremely comfortable.
To denote the M-Class's off-road ability, there is a stylish chrome underguard for the front bumper and an off-road driving mode on the lower centre console.
Choose the latter and it adapts the settings of the engine, gearbox and ESP electronic stability program for off-road excursions. Next to it is the button for the DSR Downhill Speed Regulation feature, which can be set to any speed between two and 18 kmh for safe and controlled descent on steep gradients.
But if you prefer to travel on tarmac, the ML350 promises a relaxing drive in extremely refined surroundings.
With this new M-Class, it looks like Mercedes-Benz has finally got it right.
This article was first published in The Business Times.