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How to build a better off-roader

Talk about transformation. The new Mercedes-Benz M-class is so far removed from its predecessor there’s little use comparing the two directly. It’s so good we think it could go straight to the top of its class.

The new car’s taut shape and more sporting profile cut the drag co-efficient from 0.40 to a class-leading 0.34. Underneath the sharp bodywork there have been many changes, including a switch from a ladder-frame chassis to unibody construction, new driveline combinations, plush new materials and the latest in four-wheel-drive technology.

When it hits UK showrooms in the autumn, there will be a choice of three different engines: a 3.5-litre V6, a 5.0-litre V8 and 3.0-litre V6 common-rail turbodiesel. The 3.5-litre V6 tested here kicks out 272bhp and 258lb ft of torque at 2400rpm. Mated to Mercedes’ excellent 7G-tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox (standard on all models), it propels the ML 350 to 62mph in 8.4sec and on to a top speed of 140mph.

Mercedes has replaced the traditional gearlever with a column-shift, freeing valuable stowage space in the centre console, and paddles on the rear of the steering wheel allow manual changes.

Initial impressions suggest that the new M-class copes much better in adverse conditions than the old model. The revised 4x4 system gets a hill-hold function and hill descent control, while locking differentials and low-ratio gears are optional. Steel suspension offers 210mm of ground clearance, while optional air springs provide up to 291mm. Having traversed slick, icy roads and snow-strewn fields, we can vouch for the car’s impressive traction.

Inside, you sit high, on rather flat seats. The driving position is superb, and the finish and detailing are more in keeping with a luxury saloon than an off-roader. Rear space is good: three adults can sit abreast, although the seat base is a little flat and the backrest very upright.

Luggage capacity has grown to 551 litres, rising to a vast 2050 litres with the rear seats folded. Added stowage space is available under the floor for those prepared to go without a spare wheel. There is no third row of seats, though: the new G-class due next year will provide this.

For a large and heavy car the ML is manageable and easy to manoeuvre. The steering delivers a satisfying combination of feedback and precision with a light but reassuring weighting. With its crisp turn-in and commanding visibility the ML is easy to place on the road, feeling more like a large estate car than an off-roader.

The handling is noticeably sharper. Body roll remains well controlled thanks to supreme damping control, while the cornering stance is neutral with plenty of grip. Understeer only really makes its presence felt in extreme cornering, but it is quickly quelled by fast-reacting ESP. Most pleasing, though, is the supple and cosseting ride. Nasty ridges and deep ruts are simply wiped away.The BMW X5 might have been our favourite luxury soft-roader, but the new M-class moves the whole game along.

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