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Mercedes-Benz M-Class ML250 2012 Review

It’s bigger, more powerful, more economical and more capable than ever on and off the bitumen, but the toughest job the new Mercedes-Benz M-class SUV will have when it arrives in Australia is convincing customers that a small-car engine is acceptable in a 2.1-tonne SUV.

The third-generation ML’s headline act is the very efficient 2.1-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder engine in its most affordable model, the ML250CDI BlueTEC. It’s an engine familiar to Australians in the C and E-class passenger car range, but this diminutive donk is going to challenge perceptions in a 2.1-tonne SUV in a country where only small cars are supposed to have such small engines

An expected entry price around $80,000 will no doubt attract attention, as will the ML250’s anticipated fuel economy rating of just 6.3-litres/100km. But still… a 2.1-litre four doesn’t sound very prestigious or impressive, does it? The new M-class will launch March 2012 in three mechanical guises, with most attention focused on the ML250CDI BlueTEC thanks to its leading fuel economy figure teamed with an emission rating of just 167g/km — better than Corolla and Mazda3.

The second diesel model is the ML350CDI which employs a more powerful 3.0-litre V6 turbocharged engine, while petrol duties will initially be left to the ML350CGI and its 3.5-litre V6. In April 2012 a new 4.7-litre V8 model is tipped to join the fray, and will be followed by an ML63 AMG powered by a 5.5-litre turbocharged V8.

VALUE

Mercedes-Benz Australia has not settled on pricing for the third-generation M-class, but we’re told to expect the ML250CDI to come in below the $83,500 ML300 that it replaces.The 350CDI diesel and 350CGI petrol models should carry similar price tags to their superseded namesakes ($90k and $87k respectively), thus representing improved value because of the new equipment and efficiency improvements. All models have a 7-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive and a plethora of active safety systems like ESC and brake assist.

Many of the systems Mercedes-Benz is trumpeting at the launch will be optional extras in Australia. Active Curve System uses an hydraulic stabiliser bar to keep the vehicle flatter and more stable in corners, but is only available with the optional Airmatic suspension. The On&Offroad package is similar to Land Rover’s Terrain Response, which has six settings that adapt the vehicle’s ride height, 4WD system, electronic stability control and air suspension to suit different terrain types. But it is also optional, and Benz expects less than 10 percent of buyers to pay the extra.

TECHNOLOGY

Benz has coined the term ‘transparent efficiency’ for the third-gen ML, and it’s easy to see the changes focused on improving fuel economy. For example, Benz replaced the hydraulic steering system with a new electric system which is claimed to save around 3 percent fuel use. The standard seven-speed transmission and various drivetrain components have been revised to reduce friction which in turn reduces fuel use by another 5 percent. But by far the biggest contributors to the ML’s impressive fuel economy figures are the new engines.

The ML250’s 2.1-litre turbodiesel four produces more power and torque than the old ML300, and Benz claims it accelerates to 100km/h almost a second quicker, yet carries a significantly lower fuel economy rating (6.0 v 9.8) on the European combined cycle. Australians can expect a figure closer to 6.3L/100km, but that saving still adds up to a 550 litres ($750) in a 15,000km year of driving.

The 350CDI also make impressive strides in performance and economy, though not as dramatically as the 250CDI. This 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel has 190kW and 620Nm, up from 165 and 510 respectively. It has the performance to sprint from rest to 100km/h in just 7.4 seconds. In real world driving it accelerates effortlessly and can even surge like a robust V8 when pressed.

Those preferring petrol engines will have just one option initially, the  350CGI. This direct injection 3.5-litre V6 does not employ turbochargers like its diesel brethren, so its outputs look anaemic by comparison - 225kW and 370Nm - and with a 0-100km/h time of 7.6 seconds, is not as quick as the 350CDI. It’s also more thirsty, consuming 8.8 L/100km according to its European fuel rating. Based on that it’s easy to see why more Australian buyers are expected to pick diesel over petrol, even if it will cost a few grand more.

SAFETY

Mercedes-Benz is confident the new M-Class will earn a five-star safety rating from EuroNCAP. All models are fitted with front, side and curtain airbags, stability control, traction control and brake assist and as well as Benz’s drowsiness detection system, Attention Assist. Active safety systems like Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist will be optional on some models.

DRIVING

There’s no arguing the comfort or the technology in the well-equipped M-class models we drove at the European launch. None of these luxury features like Airmatic suspension and the offroad package will be standard in Australia, but the M-class’s impressive refinement and quietness will. The biggest surprise for us is how capable the small 2.1-litre turbodiesel engine really is.

On paper such a small capacity motor should struggle to move a 2.1-tonne wagon, but in reality its 500Nm of torque teams well with the seven-speed automatic to give this most affordable model performance that should cope well with Australian driving conditions. It’s no firebrand, but it has enough acceleration when called on, and doesn’t struggle on hills or freeway situations.

We couldn’t get near the European economy rating of 6.0-litres/100km, nor the expected Australian figure of 6.3, but our result of 7.9L/100km after a day of driving in cities and on autobahns is still impressive for a car capable of carrying five adults and luggage in comfort. The interior has been updated for a more contemporary feel while retaining the levels of quality and refinement typical of Benz.

The seats are supple and comfortable, there are plenty of storage options throughout the cabin, and the rear seats have legroom to cope with adults without needing compromise from the front seats. Luggage space is generous. We drove MLs fitted with the steel spring suspension that all models will have as standard in Australia, and the optional Airmatic air suspension. And, while it’s easy to feel the difference — the Airmatic has more suppleness and bump soaking and also feel a touch more dynamic — the steel-sprung model is no slouch, though it does feel busier over the bumps.

VERDICT

The third generation Mercedes-Benz M-class is nicer to drive, more comfortable and more powerful. It’s also significantly more economical, so Benz has ticked the right boxes. It’s a shame Aussies have to pay extra for some of the headline technology systems, but it’s also hard to dispute the value in a luxury five-seat four-wheel drive wagon with lots of trimmings for around $80,000. The real question is: Are Australians ready for a future where cubes are no longer king? A tiny 2.1-litre engine will challenge perceptions, but it has more torque than a petrol V8 and sips fuel with a small-car thirst. As car companies continue to exploit the potential of turbocharging, cubes are becoming less and less relevant.

MERCEDES-BENZ ML250CDI

Price: from $80,000 (est.)
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Safety: 5 stars (est)
Engine: 2.1-litre, 150kW, 500Nmd
Body: 5-door wagon
Weight: 2150kg
Transmission: 7sp auto, all-wheel drive
Thirst: 6.3L/100km, diesel, CO2 175g/km

Pricing Guides

$39,800
Based on 96 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$28,490
Highest Price
$69,999

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
ML500 (4x4) 4.7L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $40,260 – 47,300 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML500 (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML63 AMG (4x4) 5.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $49,888 – 69,999 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML63 AMG (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML350 B.E. (4x4) 3.5L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $35,860 – 42,680 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML350 B.E. (4x4) Pricing and Specs
ML300 CDI (4x4) 3.0L, Diesel, 7 SP AUTO $28,160 – 33,990 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class 2012 ML300 CDI (4x4) Pricing and Specs