Mercedes-Benz ML 250
Price Guide (recommended price before statutory & delivery charges): $81,400
Options fitted to test car (not included in above price): ON & OFF-ROAD package $3500, AIRMATIC package $3,300, Vision Package $2,500
Crash rating: Five-star
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 6.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 168
Also consider: BMW X5 30d (from $92,100), Audi Q7 TDI ($90,500), Volkswagen Touareg V6 TDI ($82,990), Porsche Cayenne diesel ($108,700)
As 2011 came to a close, Australia's favourite luxury car brand was BMW but Mercedes-Benz argued that if you took away SUV sales and looked purely at passenger cars, the results would have been very different.
Which is where the all-new ML 250 SUV comes in, as a vehicle Mercedes-Benz hopes will boost its overall sales and combat the BMW X5's supremacy.
The ML 250 has two very effective counterattacks to aid in its sales push. At just over $80,000 it undercuts the most affordable BMW X5 by more than $10,000 (the $92,100 X5 xDrive 30d). It’s also a more refined and more enjoyable vehicle to drive than previously.
Take a quick walk around the new 2012 ML 250 and you'll notice the reworked exterior design, and the interior has been spruced up as well with welcome improvements in ergonomics such as the addition of an electric park brake and a column gear shift lever.
The new entry-level price doesn't result in budget features either. You still get 19-inch alloy wheels, selective damping, a reversing camera with reversing proximity sensors, leather steering wheel, Artico (premium vinyl) seat trim with over-white stitching, 50Gb hard drive system coupled to the COMAND infotainment system with 17.8cm colour screen, nine airbags and Bluetooth audio streaming, all as standard.
The column shifter initially seemed like a throwback to the '80s initially but in practice it worked well, and slotting the gearbox into park was as simple as tapping the chrome button on the end of the shifter stalk.
In its natural habitat of city streets and freeways, the ML 250 was a strong performer. The twin turbo four-cylinder diesel engine supplied ample torque for brisk getaways, like departing your mother in-law’s house in a hurry.
Despite being a relatively small 2.1-litre mill (hooked up a seven-speed auto), the biturbo engine rarely felt inadequate when hauling around its almost 2.2 tonne mass. Acceleration was swift (claimed 9.0 seconds to 100km/h), with plenty of mid-range punch and surprisingly little turbo lag.
Where a lot of diesel engines run out of steam higher in the rev range and are better suited to short shifting, the ML 250’s maintained momentum until 5000rpm -- well past its 4200rpm power peak. This tenaciousness made it more involving to drive, particularly on curving mountain passes.
It’s also quiet, the 150kW/500Nm engine purring along almost silently on the highway, ticking over around 2000rpm in top gear. We averaged 8.7L/100km which wasn't anywhere near the claimed 6.4L/100km but was still OK for a car this size and considering we didn't run the engine stop-start system for a period.
The light steering also made the car feel a lot smaller than its generous dimensions - 4804mm long by 1926mm wide - suggested.
It moved around very much like a car, in that it goed, turned and stopped promptly and was relatively easy to park (for an SUV), partially thanks to built-in proximity sensors fore and aft. Rearward vision was also decent thanks to a couple of small windows between the C and D pillars and a reversing camera is also handy.
It rarely felt ponderous as some big SUVs can when tipped into tight corners, and the ride was smooth.
Inside, the instrument dials had a clear and premium look, with tasteful metal trim.
Interior comfort was above average and the cabin's width was such that shoulder room will never be a problem, even for rear seat passengers.
The airy interior was finished with Artico, which isn’t quite leather but close enough, and with overt white stitching it looked suitably premium.
Our test car was equipped with the $3,500 Off-Road package, which adds low-range gearing, a 100 per cent centre differential, recalibrated ABS and stability control system plus underbody panel strengthening, a sump guard and six selectable drive moves (auto, off-road 1, off-road 2, sport, snow, trailer).
The only issue with the Off-Road package is that it cannot be ordered without the Airmatic package, which will add another $3300 to the bottom line, making for an almost $7000 hit. That said, the adjustable ride height control was very handy on uneven tracks, particularly where rain water had carved micro canyons through the trail.
With the suspension extended to its full height and slotted into low ratio mode, the Merc would not exceed a speed of 20km/h, nor did it bottom out or hit anything of significance.
Downhill descent control made slippery descents less nerve-wracking than manually adjusting the brakes, while restricting speed to 6km/h.
Off-road, comfort levels remained high, thanks to pliant suspension and decent wheel articulation. Also, throttle sensitivity was well suited to the low-range gearing, which made it easy to regulate speed while bouncing around over uneven surfaces.
We didn't push the ML 250 too deep into the wilds, but low range gearing worked well when climbing steeper slopes, as in regular drive mode the torque delivery was less precise, either spinning the wheels or resulting in no motion.
Interestingly, the proximity sensors came in handy for detecting potentially hazardous objects either side of the car, such as low-lying stumps etc.
All the various off-road systems and functions were enabled via the touch of a button or the twist of a dial and the car relayed when it needed to be stationary or be switched into neutral. The only way things could have been easier would have been if the drive modes were voice controlled...
Our final test for the new ML 250 was a hard and fast drive to the alps for a bit of skiing. And the conditions couldn't have been worse...
Nevertheless, the entry-level M-Class showed a clean pair of heels, living up to its intended function better than expected. The windscreen wipers dealt with extremely heavy rain and the instant demist button came to the rescue several times while driving in heavy fog.
But the ‘Benz really hit its straps when the traffic thinned out and the roads began to twist and turn their way up into the Great Dividing Range. Grip levels on the treacherously damp roads were aided by the all-wheel drive system, and though the light steering lacked feedback, the chassis was accomplished enough for this not to have a negative effect on the driving experience.
After about 90 minutes of hardcore twists and turns on sodden roads, it has to be said the ML 250 certainly didn’t feel like a 2175kg truck - it felt more like a much lighter and lower wagon, such was the way it entered and exited corners. It's rare to use the term 'confidence inspiring' when it comes to an SUV, but this all-wheel drive Benz can really hustle.
Part of the vehicle's dynamism could be put down to the Airmatic suspension system, which incorporates adaptive dampers, but the end result was still mightily impressive. The 93 litre fuel tank also meant the return trip wasn't interrupted with a fuel stop.
During what was to be a seven hour round trip, the seats provided good support for the back and Mercedes-Benz is one of the few car makers that has electric seat controls on the side of the door (not the seat) which makes adjusting the seating position intuitive.
Add to the package lots of boot space - 690 litres expanding to 2010 litres with the back seats folded down (via spring loaded paddles tucked between the seat back and squab) - and you're looking at one of the most versatile premium SUVs on the market.
After spending two weekends with the car, I came away very impressed with how well the vehicle dealt with a range of different scenarios and conditions.
What I didn't like was the high rear window, which is a problem most SUVs of this size have. The reversing camera helps, but isn't fool proof. and the lack of a third seat row is also dismaying, though Benz says it will offer this at a later date. Another minor issue was the exterior design which has gone backwards in my eyes - but it's unlikely to be an issue for everyone.
To finish up, it's probably best to talk about how easy the ML 250 is to operate. Whether cruising along the freeway, honking along an alpine pass late at night or just heading down to the shops, the Mercedes-Benz required very little effort to accomplish a given task. It was also a very refined machine and one that left a lasting impression.
If Mercedes-Benz is going to rely increasingly on SUV sales to win the luxury car sales race, this is a very good place to begin and considering demand is already outstripping supply in Australia, the early signs are positive.
Read the latest news and reviews on your mobile, iPhone or PDA at carsales' mobile site…