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Having largely eschewed mid-life refreshes of models, successful or not, Mercedes has opened the floodgates with a range of largely cosmetic external and internal tweaks for its ML, GL and R-Class models.
The updates were revealed in concert with the launch of Benz's BlueTEC diesel engines in the US last week. Australia will get the refreshed cars _ but not the engines _ in September.
“It's something of a new strategy that started with the substantial refresh of the SL range,” Mercedes-Benz Australia spokesman Peter Fadeyev explains.
“Previously, it was more usual to allow the product to run a cycle without really changing the look. That meant owners of cars bought early in the cycle retained the look of a current car longer.
“This time, the external changes bring the look of the cars into line with our new styling directions, but the interior changes were largely driven by customer feedback.”
The M-Class features a new- generation telematics system, developed by Mercedes, which offers a range of integrated features including a hands-free telephone system based on Bluetooth technology (something Mercedes has been slow to adopt) and an auxiliary-in connection for mobile audio devices, such as iPods.
Likely to be optional is a full media interface that will integrate all the functions of an iPod or other MP unit into the on-board electronics and control system, giving a full information display on the centre console and control via the steering wheel-mounted audio buttons.
For the first time in an ML, the voice-operated Linguatronic control system will be offered as an option, along with a new style of rear passenger DVD screen.
Unlike the previous system, where the screens were integrated into the rear of the headrests, the wireless DVD will be a bolt-on to the back of the front seats, allowing it to be offered as a retro-fit or dealer option.
New, sportier seats and a new four-spoke steering wheel with standard shift paddles complete the interior improvements.
The exterior look is most evident in a more aggressive front end with redesigned bumper, recontoured headlamps and a larger, more dominant grille. The rear view also sports a new-look bumper with integrated reflector strips which emphasises the vehicle's width.
There is also a new range of 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-inch rims.
The hero of the range will again be the AMG 63 model, with a 6.2-litre V8, 6.3 badging and a maximum output of 375kW and 630Nm.
On the road, there's precious little that isn't visual to set the revised M-Class apart from the previous version _ 300,000 of which have been sold since its release in 2005.
The steering on the test fleet sampled in Vermont was noticeably lighter and more nervous than that on Australian MLs, but Mercedes engineers were quick to point out that this steering feel was specific to North America. Cars bound for Europe and Australia will retain a more connected feel.
There is a marginal improvement in fuel economy _ around 0.4 of a litre per 100km _ but as the launch-drive cars were all fitted with BlueTEC diesel engines, comment on the petrol models bound for Australia was impossible.
The interior improvements give the ML a more refined feel; the new seats are supportive and comfortable, particularly when fitted with the optional adjustable lumbar support.
The telemetrics are highlighted by intuitive controls and a clear screen, with the adoption of Bluetooth hands-free technology for the phone a long-overdue step.
If the changes to the ML are subtle, those to the GL and R-Class are even more so _ to the extent that only train-spotters are likely to pick them.
All three models will be available here in September, and a “small” price increase is predicted.
BlueTEC diesels could be bound for Australia within 12 months of the technology's availability in Europe later this year.
Although Mercedes-Benz Australia is maintaining the line that there are no firm plans to bring the advanced engines here, the attraction of being the first company to market a Euro 6-compliant vehicle _ a step that would put Mercedes almost a decade ahead of proposed government regulation _ is almost irresistible.
“It's something that is under strong consideration, and certainly something we would like to resolve as quickly as possible,” Fadeyev says.
“Our philosophy is always to be first into the market and not wait until government regulation requires it.”
Australian regulations require vehicles to meet Euro 4 emission levels, with a move to Euro 5 in 2015. The diesels Mercedes now offers in Australia will meet the Euro 5 regulations, but a jump to Euro 6-compliant technology would be a huge selling point in a market that is increasingly environment-aware.
“As much as we would like to have BlueTEC now, there are a couple of issues we are still working through _ but I don't believe they will be insurmountable,” Fadeyev says.
It is understood the two key sticking points are cost _ BlueTEC would add around two per cent to the price of the ML, GL and R-Class models it would immediately be available on _ and a requirement for a heat shield over the particulate filter to protect against accidental ignition of dry grass under the vehicle.
Michael Angel, who is responsible for managing worldwide emissions regulations and market confirmation for Mercedes, says he's aware of the need for a heat shield but doesn't see it as a deal-breaker.
“I don't think it's a major problem ... it's just a piece of material,” Angel says. “There is no great complexity or technology involved.”
Paradoxically, the BlueTEC system is already available in Australia in three Mercedes-Benz trucks _ the Actros, Axor and Atego models. The system was launched to meet new government regulations for heavy-vehicle emissions.
BlueTEC is best described as a modular system for treating exhaust gas _ in particular, for reducing the nitrogen-oxide levels from diesel engines. Nitrogen oxide is the only exhaust-gas component that remains higher in diesel engines than in petrol engines.