It was on the flight over the Alps that the adrenaline kicked in. I knew that somewhere in the pristine white landscape below lay Innsbrusk, Austria. And out of Innsbruck lay a snaking road that awaited me and the new Mercedes-Benz M-class. Now, I happen to like the old M-class because of its easy-going nature, so it was only natural that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new one.

In the metal, the new M-class looks much more appealing than when I saw it in pictures. It’s 23mm longer than the old car and 15mm wider, as well as 20mm lower than before. These changes alone help the new car look far more dynamic than its rather conservative looking predecessor. The designers have created an aggressive-looking car, with dramatically cut wheel arches extruding from the body and a big grille with a large, three-pointed star sitting proudly on it. There are also AMG-style vents on the bonnet and a mini aerodynamic diffuser in the rear bumper, along with more traditional off-roader cues such as an imitation sump guard and proud sills. Overall, the effect is extremely positive, and there is also a strong family resemblance to the rest of the Mercedes-Benz range.

Here in India, the M-class is only going to be sold with two engines, at least initially. I drove the 3.0-litre common-rail diesel. At 258bhp, the ML 350 Blue Tec 4Matic has 34bhp more than the old ML 350 CDI. It comes mated to the latest version of Mercedes-Benz’s silky seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, complete with an automatic stop/start and brake energy recuperation functions, and a permanent four-wheel-drive system as standard.

The new diesel ML 350 CDI is just so smooth and sweet sounding even from the outside, the anyone could easily mistake it for a petrol-powered car. There’s no hint of diesel motor rattle, There’s very little vibration and even when you rev it, it’s as smooth as honey mixed with syrup.

With 63.2kgm of torque – some 10kgm more than the old car – the oil-burner makes light work of the substantial 2175kg kerb weight. It best work is achieved on part-throttle loads; the new Mercedes off-roader cruises in a relaxed, serene manner. Thanks to the linear power delivery of the engine the big M-class feels easy to drive in traffic too. The gearshifts, though, are on the slow side and the smooth and slow shifts clearly indicate that Mercedes has put refinement and comfort before performance.

Driving the car on the smooth, twisting roads of the Alps revealed that the new M-class’ dynamic properties have improved drastically thanks to a heavily reworked version of its predecessor’s chassis and double wishbone suspension. Now it handles with added fluidity, improved response and greater feedback. With all that torque on tap at just 1600rpm and four-wheel drive to apportion it to each corner, the ML 350 Blue Tec punches out of corners with great enthusiasm and hangs on exceptionally well when pushed hard. Ultimately though, the M-class still doesn’t provide an involving enough drive to rivals an X5. It excels at refinement and poise rather than engrossing appeal.

Nevertheless, it’s surprising just how quickly and easily you can hustle it down a twisting road when the dampers are in the Sport setting. Only when you need to scrub off that speed or change direction in a hurry do you realise that two tonnes of off-roader can’t really bend the laws of physics.

Performance in the rough stuff has been enhanced thanks to a new six-stage program that comes with an optional on/off-road package, offering everything from variable ride height adjustment to automatic lock-up of the differentials and a special off-road calibration for the stability control system.

It comes with a long list of merits in other areas too – a truly high – quality interior, superb-looking  instruments, nicely damped controls a commanding view of the road from the driver’s seat, a spacious cabin, copious luggage space state-of-the-art entertainment and communication systems and outstanding quality to name a few – which certainly adds to the overall appeal. It is unmistakably a Mercedes in terms of its cabin design and the smooth shapes, improved materials and flashes of alloy-effect trim create a quality atmosphere.

The M-class sticks with five seats and there are no great surprises in either its packaging or internal features. Legroom is adequate for passengers in the rear and the headroom is particularly impressive. The only rear drawbacks I can level at the new M-class right now are its larger dimensions, which will make it more of a handful in tight city traffic, and the lack of a third row of seats. But as an overall package, the new M-class is very impressive. Slated to hit Indian showrooms by the end of 2012, the M-class is definitely worth waiting for.

Source: Autocar January 2012

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