Web Spin: Mercedes Benz ML320 CDI

M-Class - Not to be Dismissed

Test Vehicle: Mercedes Benz ML320 CDI

It’s a pretty safe bet that when you go shopping for a new M-Class All-Wheel-Drive Mercedes, you’re not planning a Leyland Brothers expedition.

Gone are the days of Spartan, bare metal interiors in your average 4WD. Banished too are the squeaky, barely-upholstered seats and a dash that boasted both a speedometer and an oil-pressure warning light. “Operators” are now “drivers” and many drivers are now women.

Mercedes Benz’s all new M-Class is the epitome of the high-tech, ultra-complex off-road vehicle. Our test vehicle, the refined, all-aluminium 3.0 DOHC turbo diesel demonstrated all too convincingly the advances in dirt track technology, even though in the vast majority of cases, the vehicle will never leave the tarmac.

Highlights include (and I quote); permanent all-wheel drive, 17-inch light-alloy wheels, 7-speed automatic transmission, Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR), 4ETS electronic traction control, PARKTRONIC parking sensors, rain sensor for the windscreen wipers, airbags for driver and front passenger, sidebags in front and rear, windowbags, 6-disc CD changer, cruise control with variable speed limiter, folding rear bench seat, mobile phone pre-installation, multi-function steering wheel, newly developed crash-responsive NECK-PRO head restraints, off-road ABS and ASR, anticipatory occupant protection system PRE-SAFE, automatic climate control and tyre pressure loss warning system.

Now, despite triumphant press announcements heralding the new “trendsetter among modern off-roaders”, this Mercedes SUV has not always enjoyed the accolades it now showers on itself. When the current incarnation launched in November 2005, the hardcore motoring press looked upon the “beguiling blend of strongly contoured surfaces and taut lines” with scepticism.

Rewind to 1999 (pic right) and the birth of the M-Class. It was a real breakthrough for Mercedes Benz in the so-called ‘crossover’ market. The new Daimler-Chrysler merger meant the end for the awkward Korean SsangYong affair and an alternative for the boxy, utilitarian G-Wagen. M-Class production was, and still is, in the US plant and early models lacked the finish and quality control Mercedes buyers were used to in their German-built imports.

Although these issues were sidestepped in the glossy marketing collateral, Mercedes have worked to address these failings in the 2006 M-Class. The critics are now generally united in their praise and we see a superbly polished and refined vehicle that has the swagger back in the showroom. And if you’re heading that way soon, you’d better do some homework on this new model unless, like me, you find yourself looking in vain for the gearshift that has migrated to the steering column from its usual home in the centre console.

If you’re coming from another manufacturer’s vehicle into the tight, all-embracing leather of the M-Class, you’ll need a short orientation. The handbrake, aligned neatly with the large regular brake pedal is not, as one might wonder, an adjustable footrest. Depress it with your foot and release it with the handle to the right of the steering wheel. Germans just love these little tricks and they have the tendency to identify you as an upstart tyre-kicker and not a genuine sales prospect.

Coming to terms with the dashboard is always a brain-twister in an unfamiliar car, and especially so in a Mercedes. Arrayed like a trimmed-down 747 flightdeck, is a wealth of controls that offer access to, not just the satellite navigation and climate-control air conditioning, but the 4-ETS all-wheel-drive and AIRMATIC air suspension systems as well.

Even though your automotive adventures may be restricted to David Jones carpark, you can be assured that any of the M-Class variants are prepared for mucky work. Earlier criticism of inadequate ground clearance, for example, has been quashed with the clever addition of the AIRMATIC system that allows the entire car to be raised by as much as 110mm when the Off-Road Pro option is fitted ($10,150). In the unlikely event that your M-Class will be regularly fording the Fitzroy or traversing the Tanami, the addition of the off-road extras is a must. Most MLs in their suburban abode with the occasional dusty detour, however, will be just fine without.

Merc 3.0 Turbo Diesel

Beyond the tech wizardry and creature comforts lurks the muscle beneath the ML320 CDI. To most car buyers, the diesel route is the practical, yet decidedly unsexy option. Even though you could once comfort yourself with the fuel savings and extra torque, there was that lingering sensation of driving a reluctant mule train. The ML320 sweeps that misconception aside with the new, third generation, common-rail direct-injection turbo charged engine with double cams and 4-valves per cylinder. If that full hand of high-performance aces wasn’t enough, Mercedes Benz reminds us that this new 3-litre powerplant is one of the few aluminium crankcase diesels around. Output from the V6 is a stunning 165kW with a whopping 510nm of torque and when urged, delivers a satisfying thrust unusual in medium sized diesels. There’s no disguising the signature diesel engine note, although the cringing clanketty-clunk of old-style oilers is gone, replaced instead by a slightly more “mechanical” whirr compared to the smoother petrol siblings.

The first line of the invoice for an ML320 CDI will read $82,900 before you start adding Luxury Pack ($8,000) or Chrome Pack ($1500) or Sports Pack ($8,000). However if you find yourself thinking about the Off-Road Pro-Engineering Pack ($10,150), you may just be looking at the wrong car.

Report by Roderick Eime.

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buy a used or new hyundai terracan from a fctory dealer in great condition. It's a four wheel drive or 4wd for use off road or in the outback.