15 December 2004

A sharper-handling, crisper-looking Mercedes M-class 4x4 will go on sale next September. Revealed this week ahead of its world debut at the Detroit Motor Show, the all-new M-class is a major step forward over the outgoing model. It features a unitary construction body, advanced four-wheel drive, more powerful engines and a new interior. As a result it will become a stronger rival to the BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg.

The styling is sportier, too, with plenty of ‘wedge’ in the side profile – a shape usually associated with sportscars. Although it has grown in size, with its length stretched by 150mm and wheelbase by 95mm, the new M-class has sleeker proportions thanks to a lower roof (down by 9mm) and wider body (up 71mm). Nevertheless, the styling still has familiar cues such as the three-bar grille, forward-leaning C-pillar and wrap-around rear window.

Under the skin is a unitary body in place of the body-on-frame of its predecessor, which should mean improved crash protection and better on-road ability. Suspension is by wishbones at the front and multi-link at the rear, with air springs from Merc’s Airmatic system. Permanent four-wheel drive, an improved version of Merc’s 4-ETS system, will come as standard and be offered in two specifications. The standard set-up won’t have a transfer box with low and high ratios, or off-road electronic aids – buyers requiring these will have to pay more for an ‘off-road package’. This features a long list of mud-plugging kit, including 100 per cent locking differentials, adjustable air suspension that rises to 600mm for wading, plus anti-lock-based traction control, descent control and a hill-holder.

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Engines will be a mix of current and new units. The range will start with a 268bhp, four-valve 3.5-litre V6, followed by a 302bhp, three-valve 5.0-litre V8, and topped by a 410bhp, four-valve 5.5-litre V8. In 2006/7, this will be replaced by a new 410bhp, four-valve 4.6 V8.

A storming 500bhp-plus 6.3-litre V8 ML63 AMG will eventually top the range. Mercedes will beef up the diesel offerings in the new ML too, with two four-valve 3.0 V6 common-rail turbodiesels replacing the 160bhp 2.7-litre in-line five-cylinder engine in the outgoing ML270 CDi. They will produce 187bhp and 324lb ft in the ML280 CDi, and 220bhp and 376lb ft in the ML350 CDi. Both are said to average 30.1mpg. For the first time, Mercedes is set to offer a V8 diesel in the M-class with a 4.0-litre V8 with 300bhp, although not from launch.

Prices are expected to be close to the current range, suggesting from £31,000 for the ML350 to £50,000 for the ML500.

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