It will be 2014 before Australia sees the compact 'BLK' and mid-sized GLK SUVs, so for now the larger Mercedes-Benz ML is the most affordable entry into a 4WD from the world's oldest car manufacturer.
Mercedes-Benz Australia has used the lack of smaller SUVs for this neck of the woods – the GLK has been available for years in left-hand-drive markets – as a bargaining tool with Daimler HQ in Stuttgart to be even more aggressive with the new ML's pricing.
At $81,400, the new Mercedes-Benz ML range starts nearly $4500 cheaper than the previous model – and thousands more in overall value terms when you take the expanded standard equipment lists into account.
Mercedes is hoping the third iteration of the model that was the world’s first luxury SUV will help it clamber back up the large luxury SUV sales chart. The market-leading BMW X5 is clearly worried, though, having recently been given a significant value upgrade.
There’s no radical design departure for the new Mercedes-Benz ML, with the evolutionary styling headlined by the angled C-pillar with wraparound-style rear glass arrangement that Mercedes now clearly sees as a trademark for its luxury 4WD.
However, there are some more interesting creases here and there for the bodywork, keeping in line with the other latest Benzes, the beltline is higher, and there are plenty of other detail changes – including LED fibre optic tail-lights and LED daytime running lights now standard across the range.
Underneath, too, is an all-new platform – shared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee as a result of the now defunct DaimlerChrysler alliance.
The Mercedes-Benz ML grows in size – 23mm longer, 15mm wider – though there’s a bigger change to the front and rear tracks (axle widths) to improve stability.
A bonnet and front quarter panels constructed from aluminium contribute to a weight saving of about 35kg, though the ML is an SUV that still hits the scales at well over two tonnes.
The German luxury car brands, though, are continuing to prove that good fuel efficiency and heavy SUVs aren’t always mutually exclusive.
Consumption for the entry-level Mercedes-Benz M-Class – the ML250 that is expected to account for up to half of the model’s sales – is so low, that it’s just a tenth of a litre behind the Lexus RX450h hybrid’s 6.3L/100km.
With Australian versions of the Mercedes-Benz ML incorporating fuel tanks that are 93 litres in size as standard, compared with 70 litres in Europe, that gives the ML250 a theoretical fuel range of 1453km.
That’s helped by the first four-cylinder diesel to feature in the ML – the 2.1-litre direct fuel injection turbo diesel engine that’s already doing service in other Mercedes models.
Fuel economy improves by up to 20 per cent across the entire Mercedes-Benz ML range, though, which includes the ML350 Bluetec with a 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel, the ML350 BlueEfficiency with an older (3.5-litre) V6 turbo diesel, as well as the V8-powered ML500 and ML63 AMG that arrive later in 2012.
Four out of five MLs sold are predicted to be either the ML250 or ML350, so it’s useful that we got to test both diesels on the official launch.
Whichever model you choose, mechanical refinement is excellent. Even the four-cylinder turbo diesel that can be noisy in the C-Class and E-Class is less prominent in the ML, while the ML350 hums along so quietly that you’ll notice tyre and wind noise more – though even then the cabin is impressively quiet even at freeway speeds.
The engine stop-start system is also one of the most subtle we’ve encountered, re-engaging quietly – and quickly – as soon as pressure is released from the brake pedal.
The ML250 is far from under-endowed with 150kW and 500Nm – identical power and torque to the bigger and thirstier diesel six-cylinder of the ML300 CDI model it replaces.
That torque peak arrives between 1600 and 1800rpm, though the ML250’s low-end response is no match for the terrific immediacy of the ML350. The ML350 Bluetec, which costs from $99,900, also feels noticeably stronger through the range with its extra 120Nm, maintained for another 600rpm (1600-2400rpm).
In the kickdown for overtaking stakes, for example, it’s a far more effortless experience in the ML350.
The different characteristics of the engines also means the V6 is a better mate for the smooth-shifting seven-speed auto, which is calibrated with a bias towards fuel efficiency and the early upshifts can occasionally leave the ML250 feeling a bit laboured.
To try to prove the four-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz ML is the Great Large Luxury SUV, the German brand set the launch route along Victoria’s famous Great Ocean Road.
The seemingly infinite number of coastal bends revealed that while the new ML isn’t going to challenge the BMW X5 for driver involvement, it does seem to have struck a decent balance between ride and handling.
We'll need to wait until we drive the ML in cities and our own chosen roads before there's a more definitive verdict, as the few patches of poorer surfaces we encountered on the launch suggested there could still be some unwanted jiggle from the firmer-than-before suspension.
Mid-corner bumps definitely ruffle the ML’s composure, however, while the steering weighting is biased more towards luxury than sporty, and there’s some body lean through corners, but the Mercedes will still be enjoyable enough for most owners.
A so-called Active Curve System is optional (at $4900) on the ML350 (standard on upcoming ML500 and ML63 AMG), though none of the test cars were fitted with this technology.
ACS is claimed to improve lateral body control through active anti-roll bars that are divided into two pieces rather than the typical single-piece construct, with oil-filled chambers pressurised hydraulically on the left or right side depending on corner direction.
Mercedes says the system’s ability to compensate for twisting on one particular side of the vehicle also allows for better straight-line ride comfort, though even without Active Curve the ML romps along with terrific stability and serenity.
Vision front and rear is mostly excellent, with the only negative the A-pillar that can sometimes hinder the view around right-hand corners.
Looking inside the ML from the comfortable driver’s pew, some chrome trim surrounds do few favours for the perception of luxury though overall there’s no denying the quality of materials used throughout the cabin.
Most dials and switches are known from other Mercedes models, though the stalks are a new design - but with familiar functions - shared currently only with the B-Class.
The screen that displays audio, telephone and other menus, plus the picture from the standard reversing camera, is positioned more ergonomically, closer to eye level.
While the rival Audi Q7 is a seven-seater and the BMW X5 offers an optional third row, the Mercedes-Benz ML remains a five-seater only.
Generous shoulder width, however, ensures you can genuinely fit three adults in the rear – on a bench that offers plenty of space for feet, knees and heads, as well as good under-thigh support.
There’s no shortage of cubby holes or compartments for placing smaller items, while in the bigger scheme of storing things the already sizeable (although not class-leading) 690-litre boot expands to 2010 litres when the rear seats are folded (completely) flat.
A full-diameter temporary spare wheel sits under the boot floor.
There’s also no lack of options, even if the base Mercedes-Benz ML is loaded with plenty of features such as 19-inch alloy wheels, reverse-view camera, nine airbags, parallel parking assistance, Comand multimedia system and electronic parking brake (with the release lever in the same spot as the older foot-operated versions so Mercedes customers are familiar with its position).
Among a multitude of packages available for extra cost, there’s an Off-road package that brings a low-range transfer case, variable driving modes for adapting to different surfaces/scenarios, centre differential lock, sump guard and additional underbody protection.
Mercedes-Benz admits only five per cent of buyers of the previous ML opted for the Off-road pack, and even then it was chosen more for towing than venturing deep into the bush.
But for the vast majority of SUV buyers who stick to the bitumen, the Mercedes-Benz ML is not only better value than before, it’s also better to drive.