Mercedes updated its M-class SUV in 2011, offering a fresh take on its Alabama-built 4x4 with new platform, styling and notably-downsized powertrains. Have they leapt to the head of the premium SUV class with the latest edition? Anthony ffrench-Constant evaluates the four-cylinder diesel ML250 Bluetec Sport to find out...
Mercedes ML250 first impressions: Computer says no
Speed Limit Assist? No thank you. Active Lane Keeping Assist? Not right now. Active Blind Spot Assist? My neck works fine, thanks. Intelligent Light System? Night View Assist PLUS? Not at three in the afternoon, pal. Attention Assist? Look, I wonder if you’d be good enough to just f…
In an increasingly irascible attempt to assess honest mechanical engineering rather than sly, over-solicitous electronics, I became so distracted by my efforts to switch everything but the engine of the new Mercedes M-Class off again that -but for the very systems I was frantically trying to disable- Tow Truck ‘n’ Germoline Assist might well have been called into play at any moment.
Mercedes ML250: loaded with new technology
Same as it ever was… Every new Mercedes I’ve driven of late has lumbered to the launch pad groaning under the weight of Ahem-sir-is-looking-a-tad-tired-why-not-pull-over-for-a-steaming-cup-of-coffee-and-a-quick-snooze-Assist type safety systems and the occasional hot air scarf hatched several decades too late to save Isadora Duncan.
Now, given that these diverse NannyTronics are almost entirely optional and may be switched off anyway (e…ven…tu…a…lly), this state of affairs could not justifiably constitute a beef of any stature but for one system I simply could not shut down and another –which I desperately wished to sample- that wasn’t fitted to the car at all.
The former is called Presafe Brake, or somesuch. Permanently active whether you like it or not, it specialises in chastising the driver who trundles too close to the car in front, first with warning lights and then with automatic braking. An unsolicited dab of anchor is not ideal when you’re just pulling out to overtake, as I have so far discovered in the new CLS, C-Class Coupe and M-Class.
The latter is called an Active Curve System. An option to compliment the adaptive damping of the car’s optional air suspension, it employs active front and rear anti-roll bars to keep the M-Class flatter than a Lancashire vowel through the bends, whilst dialling out their influence on straights to maximise comfort. And this, given Mercedes’ avowal to pitch the new M-Class head to head with the dangerously able Range Rover Sport, makes it worth a look...
The ML250 on road and test track
Sadly, we weren’t allowed to sample it first hand, but a couple of lunch loss-threatening laps at the hands of ex-DTM and Dakar pilot Ellen Lohr suggested that the system works admirably, with none of the gently perceptible, pre-activation lurch on turn in which has tended to hallmark such technology to date.
Truth be told, the ML’s handling has improved dramatically even without the help of active anti-roll bars. Body roll has been well shackled under all but the most strenuous of circumstances, with minimal loss of straight line ride comfort. The latter is undoubtedly abetted by the most comfortable seat to grace any 4x4, even if the door and centre console armrests are set an irritating whisker off the same level.
How does the ML250 compare to its rivals?
The Mercedes still falls a whisker short of the full Imperious offered by the Range Rover Sport and, though its new electromechanical steering may be efficient, it’s hardly involving. However, the big car may now be hustled down sweeping A roads with a degree of vim and a level of involvement that is entirely new to a Mercedes SUV.
Under the bonnet, efficiency now rules the M-Class roost. The 500 V8 went west last year, and even the 350 V6 petrol engine won’t make it to the UK in the new Mercedes. So that leaves us with the simple choice of 250 and 350 BlueTEC diesels and the new 5.5 litre Bi-turbo AMG unit.
ML250: the downsized powerplants
The 250 BlueTEC unit makes its first appearance in the M-Class. It’s a 4-cylinder, 2.2 litre twin-stage turbodiesel developing 201bhp and 369lb ft of torque via a 7-speed automatic gearbox. And the excitement it generates has everything to do with it making the M-Class the only posh 4x4 to emit less than 160g/km of CO2, and very little indeed to do with the driving experience.
With the exception of some unwarranted vibration at around 1800rpm, the engine’s adequately smooth and refined, and will haul over two tons of car along quite adroitly in the cruise. It is, however, somewhat lacklustre in the overtaking stakes, and response to kick-down appears to require written notification, in triplicate, before even contemplation of compliance. Hardly the armoury with which to take the fight to the Range Rover Sport.
Then again, sales of the once ubiquitous Supercharged V8 Sport have now reached anvil-off-a-cliff status, so it would seem that even those who can afford the purchase price of said leviathan are now gently swayed by such piffling concerns as cost of ownership and running, piecemeal, for the cover of a V6 diesel.
Mercedes ML250: verdict
In this context, and even powered by a sewing machine, the new M-Class makes a far more convincing proposition than its predecessor. It’s better looking and more comfortable, and handles better both on and off road. And with prices starting from around £45,000, it’s not that much more expensive to boot.