In India, the Mercedes-Benz SUV range is limited to the M-class and the hugely expensive, gargantuan GL-class. This, in effect, means Merc has nothing in its arsenal to tackle smaller and more affordable rivals from BMW and Audi. The Mercedes GLK, which is positioned against the X3 and Q5, isn’t available here and there is currently nothing on a Merc production line anywhere on earth to take on the BMW X1 and the Audi Q3 – arguably the juiciest segment of this market.
What this new all-new M-class has to do, then, is multi-task. It has to offer everything a traditional full-size SUV buyer looks for – space, presence, performance – and be attractive and affordable enough to tempt compact SUV buyers into stepping up. This is exactly what Mercedes-Benz is hoping to achieve with the new M-class. With the Union Budget’s decidedly import-unfriendly nature, Merc is focusing aggressively on a huge localisation program – even major elements like the engine will be assembled in India. The engine, incidentally, will be built by Force India.
This is part of the reason the new M-class has a positively tasty price. The base version, which is very well equipped, comes in at Rs 56.9 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), a price that significantly undercuts similarly specced Audi Q7s and BMW X5s, and puts the M-class within shouting distance of top-end X3s and Q5s.
The new M-class also boasts segment-leading quality, safety, refinement and efficiency and it
is bigger, better and has more equipment than the old M-class. So, on the face of it, it seems like Mercedes has hit the nail on the head. But has it? Is the new M-class all that the company is making it out to be? We throw it at some of the toughest conditions this side of the Sahara to find out.
Driving the car on twisty roads revealed that the new M-class handles much better than before, and is light and easy to drive. Ultimately though, the M-class still doesn’t provide an involving enough drive to rival an X5. When you need to scrub off speed or change direction in a hurry, you really do realise that two tonnes of off-roader can’t bend the laws of physics. The 4Matic system is not as quick at juggling power between axles and wheels as BMW’s xDrive or Audi’s Quattro systems either.
Still, the steering is quite similar to an E-class in the way that it feels beautifully fluid and is very easy to twirl at city speeds, but doesn’t weigh up sufficiently as you go faster.
The ML 350 CDI now has a stiffer chassis, as a result of which its high-speed manners are impeccable, and it rides over broken surfaces without much fuss. It’s while going over smaller surface disturbances and at lower speeds that you feel the consequences of Mercedes’ decision to aim for a stiffer chassis setup. The new car rides well, but not with as much compliance as the old car. The occasional sharp ridge thumps through the air suspension’s shock absorption too. We also wish the brakes had more feel and a bit more stopping power; the 2175kg kerb weight builds up so much momentum that the brakes sometimes feel inadequate
Our test car wasn’t equipped with the optional off-road package, but the M-class felt quite happy on the mild off-road bits we took it to. The suspension’s lift function gives it some serious clearance, the 4Matic system felt more than capable of coping with the dirt track we took it to.
The BlueEfficiency badge you see on the wings of the car is not a single system, but a collection of optimisation measures that work as a whole to make a significant impact on fuel economy. On this car they include a stop-start system, improved aerodynamic efficiency and a catalytic converter that reduces harmful nitrogen oxide gases by a claimed 80 percent. Our tests show the new ML 350 CDI is much more efficient than the old M-class. The new ML BlueEfficiency returned 7.0kpl in the city and 10.9kpl in the highway cycle.