From £42,425
Feels just as good in Britain. Mercedes now has a first-rate 4x4

We’ve already lined up the new Mercedes M-class with its key rivals and it beat the lot, BMW X5 included. (Autocar, 8 March 2005). So what more can we say here?

Plenty. Our only caveat to the ML’s victory was that it took place in Germany, so we reserved the final nod until we got to sample it on British roads.

First impressions are that it gets that nod. Even on our more scarred and twistier roads the ML still feels like two generations ahead of the grim model it replaces. There’s the same confection of ride refinement and the excellent damping control that we remember. Along with the same sort of noise suppression, comfort, space and well manicured appearance you’d expect from a Benz saloon.

It doesn’t feel as agile as the X5, mind you, but has nicely chuckable neutral handling nonetheless. Unlike the Volvo XC90 there’s also no third row of seats either, you'll need the G-class for that.

This time round we’ve also left the tarmac and while it’s not Land Rover standard off-road it will meet the needs of most buyers. Standard cars don’t have a low ratio box, relying on traction control, permanent four-wheel drive and DSR (downhill speed regulator) to keep you moving in the mud.

Real 4x4 aficionados would do well to spend £1265 on air-suspension – and gain on-road benefits too – as well as another £1320 on the ‘off-road pro’ pack which adds locking diffs, a transfer box and greater ground clearance. With that lot fitted it’s impressive indeed, and on a par with the best mud-pluggers.

Just to recap the new M is an all-new car, bigger in every dimension over the outgoing one and now built on a monocoque. When it goes on sale next week you can choose from three different engines: a 3.5-litre V6, 5.0-litre V8 and 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, all with a standard seven-speed auto.

The 320 CDi is the way to go, having typical big Benz diesel refinement and punch, as well as the obvious economy advantages. Petrols are almost as impressive, but apart from a creamier note under hard loads there’s little reason to opt for the V8 over the six-cylinder.

Prices kick off at £36,710 for the base ML 350, rising to £49,925 for the full house 500. That’s pricier than the Beemer, but there are kit advantages, notably a standard auto on the six-cylinder models. Anyone about to press the button on an X5 order should now think twice.

Chas Hallet

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