Mercedes’ luxurious and well-manned V6 diesel ML has class, quality and comfort to spare

What is it?

Our first chance to test Mercedes’ third-generation M-class SUV on European roads. European editor Greg Kable has already tried an ML on European chassis settings, but only on the wider and flatter roads of the USA. Now we find out how well the new upmarket 4x4 rides and handles closer to home.

Built on an all-new platform that will also serve underneath next year’s new GL-class, the new ML features double wishbone style suspension up front, and a multi-link setup at the rear. As standard it gets steel springs, ‘selectable’ gas dampers and a fairly limited amount of ground clearance for a large 4x4 (202mm).

Spend a bit extra and you’ll be able to option up your ML to suit either proper offroad driving, or for more precise and agile on-road responses, however. With height adjustable Airmatic air springs equipped, you can go for Mercedes’ ‘On-&-Offroad’ package, which adds a low range transfer gearbox, underbody protection, lockable centre and rear differentials and height adjustable suspension to allow for up to 285mm of ground clearance.

Or alternatively, you can go for Sport suspension and Mercedes’ ‘Active Curve System’, which works via active anti-roll bars front and rear, and gives the ML added grip and body control during fast cornering.

What’s it like?

Our test car was Mercedes’ 255bhp V6 diesel model fitted with air suspension. Although a way off the three-hundred horses of BMW’s most powerful six-cylinder diesel engine, it beats the lesser X5 3.0d on power, torque and emissions, likewise an Audi Q5 3.0 TDi and a like-for-like VW Touareg.

Wider, longer and lower than the car it replaces, the new ML looks much less like a conventional tall 4x4 than either of its predecessors on first inspection. Its styling is neat enough and well resolved, if a little conservative. Merc’s design department should have been bolder if they really wanted to endear the car to a younger audience.

Inside, the ML’s a spacious machine with a distinguishing aura of tactile quality and material sumptuousness. In lavishly equipped models, its standards in material specification and finish approach those of a current Range Rover even. The car’s primary ergonomics are good in the main, although you’re aware of a wide transmission tunnel and a slightly off-centre steering column – compromises made to accommodate the car’s heavy duty four-wheel drive system and its long-travel air suspension. In the rear there’s generous head-, shoulder- and legroom too, although entry for taller occupants is a little more tricky without clouting your head.

Mechanical refinement in the new ML is absolutely top drawer. Merc’s ‘noise, vibration and harshness’ specialists compared the new car to the old one, as well as to its German opposition, during development. They say they found even the outgoing M-class to be quieter than a current X5, Touareg and Cayenne. The new ML is quieter still, with a large, thick magnesium sound-deadening front bulkhead, triple-sealed windows and doors, and a pioneering aerosol-based spray-on NVH insulation applied at key NVH ‘hotspots’ on the car’s body-in-white.

Even at autobahn speeds you’ll hear very little road or wind noise for such an upright car. Rolling refinement is good, although not quite in the same league. Over smaller surface disturbances you can feel the consequences of Mercedes’ decision to aim for a stiffer chassis compromise than in previous MLs; the new car rides well, but not with as much compliance as the very smoothest SUVs. The occasional sharp ridge thumps through the air suspension’s shock absorption, too.

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Without Mercedes’ active anti-roll bars, the car has the traction and body control to compare favourably with most of its rivals – but with the ‘Active Curve System’ it really is remarkably responsive, grippy and composed. Mercedes demonstrated the system on a tight handling course, with one ML following another at close quarters. Although journalists weren’t permitted to drive, as passengers we watched as the cars remained almost completely upright when thrown around the twisty circuit, seeming all-but-immune to understeer as well as pitch and roll.

It was an impressive display, although it remains to be seen how much the active roll-bars will affect the consistency of the car’s steering weight. Without ‘ACS’ and rolling on optional 19in alloys, the ML’s steering isn’t perfect anyway, lacking a little in natural feel and consistency. That said, Mercedes’ electromechanical power assisted setups are still in their infancy. Given the company’s habitual drive towards continual improvement, they could become much better before this ML is halfway through its lifecycle.

Should I buy one?

Mercedes UK has yet to confirm on-the-road prices for the new ML, but assuming they’re commensurate with the outgoing car, the new one will be a very recommendable machine indeed.

A shortage of performance versus the most sporting premium diesel SUVs is likely to rule out an ML350 Bluetec for those who demand the quickest car in the class. But if your tastes are more rounded, and you can afford to pay a little more than the class norm to satisfy them, you’ll find this Mercedes a very impressive all-rounder. Refined, practical, luxurious and apparently built to last, it’s not quite as capable off the road as Land Rover Discovery, but could probably outclass the Brit in myriad other ways.

Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Bluetec SE

Price: £tbc (circa £45k); Top speed: 139mph; 0-62mph: 7.4sec; Economy: 41.5mpg; Co2: 179g/km; Kerbweight: 2175kg; Engine type, cc: V6, 2987cc, turbodiesel; Installation: Front, longitudinal, four-wheel drive; Power: 255bhp at 3600rpm; Torque: 457lb ft at 1600-2400rpm; Gearbox: 7-spd automatic

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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pandamonium 2 September 2011

Re: Mercedes ML350 Bluetec

A lot less distinctive than before, if you looked at the front and imagined it without the badge and with a thinner grill it could be the updated Touareg face. The rear? well this could be from any far east equivalent. I wasnt keen on the mk1 but I liked the current version which is quite good looking, certainly had a distinctive front face and side profile and better looking than the current X5, I'm not so sure about this new shape. Perhaps it'll be better once I see one in the flesh.

The interior seems to be top notch like all new gen Merc but if i was in the market for one of these (which I'm not), would I spend the extra on this or save some money and buy the Touareg, certainly based on these pictures and the reviews for both I would probably choose the VW, why pay more for something which doesn't look any better than a cheaper alternative which also has similar qualities. Once AC have given it's verdict on a full UK test then this may sway my opinion.