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Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDI Sport

Click to view picture galleryMoney might be tight — but not for
  everybody. Business users and
  affluent retail buyers still want their
  executive 4x4s, and high on their
  lists is a Mercedes M-Class, just
  revamped for the 2009 model year...

MERCEDES-BENZ HAS JUST INTRODUCED the mildly revamped and restyled 2009 model year M-Class 4x4 range to the UK, at prices ranging from £39,735 to £77,455. The main selling ML 320 CDI Sport model, as tested here, costs £44,285.

Revised, visually refreshed and refocused specification models are the main points of the new M-Class range. And before anybody thinks big 4x4s are dead ducks, take note that five out of the 4x4 sector's top ten are heavyweights such as the M-Class. Of the top ten, the Land Rover Discovery leads the way, followed by the Range Rover, BMW X5, the Mercedes Benz M-Class and the Audi Q7. People buying these types of premium vehicles are less troubled by money worries — so far, anyway.

While the petrol-engined ML 350 has been deleted from the range, the V8-powered ML 500 and ML 63 AMG versions continue — even though each accounts for just one per cent of total M-Class UK sales. The revised engine line-up is: ML 280 CDI (187bhp V6) which will take around 30 per cent of sales; the 221bhp V6 ML 320 CDi (the most popular buy, with almost 60 per cent of sales); and the 302bhp V8 ML 420 CDI that will account for the remaining eight per cent.

The latest updates include a new grille (which differs in colour between SE and Sport versions), re-profiled front and rear bumpers, new exterior door mirrors, new projection beam headlights and dark-tinted tail lights. The increased standard specification includes Parktronic front and rear sensors, Easy-Pack powered tailgate, automatically-dimming exterior and rear-view mirrors, automatic wipers, Bluetooth connectivity and redesigned front seats.

SE models have black roof rails, a black grille, twin exhaust pipes, multi-function steering wheel, leather upholstery and the upmarket Audio 20 sound and Telematics information system. Sport versions, the expected best selling models, have stainless steel front and rear underguards, aluminium finish roof rails, side running boards, privacy glass, 20-inch alloy wheels, sports seats, rubber-studded stainless steel pedals and an interior lighting package.

The new-generation M-Class retains its predecessor's packaging versatility with seating for five adults (or four in real comfort) and a spacious 500-litre load bay that can be extended to a vast 1,830 litres by folding the one/two thirds split rear seats. A further 220 litres can be achieved with removable cushions — this can be ordered as a £320 option and includes a Load-Securing Kit and creates a level load surface extending up to 2,100mm in length.

The M-Class benefits from all of Mercedes-Benz the renowned safety and handling characteristics found in their luxury saloon, coupé and sports models. Included as standard is the award-winning PRE-SAFE anticipatory impact system along with NECK-PRO active anti-whiplash front head restraints. The comprehensive safety package also provides next-generation Anti-lock Braking, Brake Assist, Four-wheel Electronic Traction Control (4ETS), Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), Trailer Stability Assist and Acceleration Skid Control — resulting in a full five-star Euro NCAP impact test rating.

All M-Class versions have permanent all-wheel drive and all make use of a 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission — now fitted with proper gearshift paddles which are much easier to use than the previous behind-the-wheel buttons.

One of the popular extra cost options is the £1,305 Airmatic that allows the driver to select from Sport, Comfort or Standard modes. However this system, even in Sport mode, makes for a 'detached' ride as it floats over the road surface and induces bodyroll. Nevertheless, a good feature of it is the fact that it also 'weights up' the steering in the Sport setting for more feedback to the driver as well as sharpening up the throttle and gearchange point responses. If your enjoy driving, be aware that the standard non-air suspension provides better all round handling but not the sharper responses for the steering, throttle and the auto transmission. A pity that we cannot have it all.

The M-Class may be outshone off road by its Range Rover and Land Rover competitors — but less than it ever was. For brand appeal and quality, however, M-Class is, I think, superior. Yes, it only has five seats — not enough for some users in this sector — but it is a premium package with huge amounts of technology built-in.

Only by testing this vehicle in extremely wet conditions on a circuit and off road can one appreciate just how good the slalom handling and emergency braking functions have become using electronics. For a big 4x4, the M-Class sets new standards. Off road slip-and-slide performance on road tyres is adequate for most owners — but you will get stuck when the going gets really tough.

Having driven most versions of the latest M-Class both on- and off-road, I believe the ML 320 CDI is, overall, the best engine to choose: thanks to the huge 376lb ft of torque delivered from only 1,600rpm, the 3.0-litre V6 direct injection common-rail turbodiesel is strong and very responsive. And there's more than enough power to tow a braked 3,500kg.

Going on Mercedes' claims, the predicted best-selling model will be the ML 320 CDI Sport — a case of 'What's an extra £2,500 when you're paying £41,785?' I'm not so sure that the extra £2,500 the Sport costs over SE specification is worth it. Some people obviously do like running boards and 20-inch wheels, but the SE is better value and it has all the brilliant technology that makes it easy and safe to drive. Choose the Sport and add in a few more 'must have' options — such as satellite navigation, air suspension and automatic directional beam headlamps — and the price of a well-specc'd 320 CDI climbs to a smidgen under £50,000.

All-in-all, the new M-Class is undeniably a classy act. For your money you get an imposing, high quality heavyweight 4x4 powered by a strong and responsive engine, a silky smooth transmission and brilliant, safe-driving technology. While it's not as sharp to drive when fitted with the optional air suspension, and it has limited off-road capabilities, I warrant that more than enough customers will be making the trip to their local Mercedes-Benz dealer to order one. And, no doubt, a well-specc'd Sport model at that! — David Miles

Mercedes-Benz ML 320 CDI Sport
| £44,285
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-62mph: 8.6 seconds
Overall test MPG: 24.8mpg | Power: 221bhp | Torque: 376lb ft
CO2 254g/km | VED Band G £400 | Insurance group 17