May 3 2009 John Scantlebury
Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDi SE
I CAN think of better times to discuss a king-size car but at least Mercedes can point to a stack of assets in its extensively-revised M-Class 4x4.
For example, this ML SE costs just £250 more than the outgoing model but gets £2,400 worth of extra standard equipment, though it has to be admitted it still costs more than £40,000.
But for that you get a lot of car. The M-Class was always imposing but this latest version is even bolder, with striking new looks fore and aft, a redesigned interior and revised engines. In this case, the 224bhp V6 common rail turbo diesel benefits from management-system enhancements in raised economy figures - nearly 36mpg on the open road - and lowered emissions, although the CO2 stats are still unhealthy.
There's a huge amount of torque at work here and available right down at 1,600 revs, and you have to be impressed at the ease with which the unit shifts 2,185kg of vehicle around - with seemingly no fuss at all, it gets the car from standstill to 62mph in just 8.6 seconds. And this executive-level calm is repeated in the general ride and handling that makes distance driving a very relaxed affair.
The suspension employs aluminium double wishbones at the front and multi-link at the rear and pleasing soak-it-up settings, although even anti-dive and anti-squat features can't save the car from an inclination to bounce on poor back roads. But grip and sure-footedness is ensured by the all-wheel drive and stiff build, while the rack and pinion steering offers a good direct feel.
Don't expect nimbleness at this size, though - the turning circle is 11.6 metres - and, while raised seating provides very good visibility in the main, the big front pillars can be an obstruction.
Elsewhere for the driver, the old-style gear-shift stalk reappears and, once you are accustomed to it, provides slick and smooth changes in a seven-speed auto transmission, while you also get shift paddles on the steering wheel.
This area also gets a cruise/distance control stalk as well as all the remote control features on the steering wheel itself, so it is understandable why Mercedes tries to clean things up a bit by having all the lights and wiper functions on a single stalk. But it takes some getting used to and even deep into the week I was, for example, still knocking on lights of some sort when groping for another function altogether.
But back to the drive features and a whole raft of safety measures. Stability and traction programmes lead the way and are backed up by the likes of acceleration skid control, trailer stability assist, hill-start assist and next-generation ABS with brake assist. For occupants, there's Mercedes' anticipatory impact system, active front head restraints and full airbags coverage.
Should you be tempted to take your £40,000 worth of car off-road, you can bring in the downhill speed regulator, although the car in its natural state is not totally equipped for voyaging into extreme rough. For that you will need the optional off-road package, bringing in low range, extended ground clearance, a proper underguard (as opposed to the pseudo one on the standard car) and locking centre and rear differentials.
There is, in fact, an interesting options list and the test car's additions included all-leather upholstery, media interface, COMAND system (with voice control and satnav) and air suspension.
But don't think the ML SE is mean with worth-having goodies - the lengthy standard fittings list has some welcome luxury inclusions, among the best the full electric adjusting and heated front seats, man-made leather upholstery, powered tailgate, automatic climate control, Bluetooth interface, an eight-speaker sound system with five inch colour display and telephone keyboard, and burr walnut wood trim with chrome accents.
There's more chrome on the SE's exterior, along with black roof rails, 18in alloys, two tailpipes and an imposing black grille.
As well as all the toys (more than I have space to mention here) the M-Class scores highly on general facilities and comfort. There's oodles of interior space for occupants and smaller items, while the car offers 500 litres of luggage space with all seats in use. Fold the rear ones down to a flat floor and that rises to a super 1,830 litres - buy the optional removeable cushions and the figure reaches 2,050.
It will be interesting to see how big-beast 4x4s fare when the market eventually settles down. At the moment down-sizing seems to be gathering pace, along with high economy, but quality will always be a major selling point. And the M-Class comes high in that bracket.
Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDi SE
Mechanical: 224ps, 2,987cc, 6cyl diesel engine driving four wheels via 7-speed automatic gearbox
Max speed: 134mph
0-62mph: 8.6 seconds
Combined mpg: 30.1
Insurance group: 18
CO2 emissions: 246g/km
BiK rating: 35%
Warranty: 3yrs/ unlimited mileage