It may not seem like that long ago that the thought of a primarily road-biased luxury SUV from Mercedes-Benz was seen as a trifle far-fetched, but believe it or not, the ML-class is already in its third generation. These days, of course, it doesn’t only have to compete with the BMW X5, but just about every manufacturer has jumped onto the bandwagon, including Porsche with its Cayenne. While there is no argument that the second-generation ML remained a strong competitor right up to the time of its replacement, we wonder whether this third-generation ML 250 version moves the game on by a big enough step.
Subtler design approachWhereas its predecessor was quite a muscular-looking SUV with squared-off detailing, the new Mercedes ML offers a less expressive design with softer contouring. For some this will undoubtedly be appealing, but we can’t help but wonder whether an SUV shouldn’t by its very nature be a more masculine offering. In any event, the new ML is hardly ugly and the smoother design is said to be the result of prioritising improved aerodynamics. The bulbous nose can not be mistaken for anything other than a Mercedes, and the rear features some nice detailing, including wider tail lamps that adds “visual” width to the ML overall. It’s only on the sides where you will find some questionable sculpting and surfacing that conspire to make the ML look “under-wheeled” even though it boasts 18-inch alloys as standard.
There are no design-related question marks in the exquisite interior. Crafted from convincing materials and without frilly detailing, the more “formal” design and excellent fit and finish of this ML reminds one of Mercedes models of the past – it feels as solid as a German bank vault. Although this is the entry level model in the ML line-up, it hardly looks like it from behind the leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel. The neat instrumentation is set deep into two individual dials that flank a comprehensive trip computer. A full-colour screen for the various info-tainment functions is located near the top of the centre section of the facia. As with most new Mercedes models, the Comand controller, located on the transmission tunnel, is used to scroll between options on this screen. Ergonomically the ML 250 is excellent, even though particularly the multitude of buttons for the audio system initially appears daunting.
Seating comfort is excellent, with the steering wheel boasting generous rake and reach adjustability, and the driver’s seat boasting height adjustment, too. The seats themselves initially felt a little hard but nevertheless proved to be comfortable. With its long wheelbase and large body, the ML’s rear passengers are afforded stretch-out space. The rear seat bases can also tumble forward individually, with the seatbacks then folding down, resulting in a large, flat surface to transport bulky objects. The boot, even with all five seats occupied still measures a very generous 690 L.
Although a great many option boxes are available for ticking, the standard features package has been carefully considered. It includes such luxuries as keyless entry, climate control, rear park assist, leather upholstery and an audio system with Bluetooth and USB/aux support, but you pay extra for satellite navigation, auto lights etc. The safety package, however, is superb, with the ML boasting seven airbags and ESP (electronic stability system).
Focus on economyAs the BlueTec moniker indicates, this ML prioritises efficiency. It is powered by a 2,1-litre turbodiesel engine that delivers 150 kW and 500 Nm of torque. Now, as impressive as those figures may be, remember that this ML weighs more than two tonnes! Nevertheless, Mercedes-Benz claims a 0-100 km/h time of 9,0 seconds and a 210 km/h top speed. In reality, the ML 250 never feels quite that fast, even when the seven-speed automatic transmission’s Sport mode is selected. It does, however, sound quite sporty… Far more impressive is the economy on offer. It will take some very careful driving to match Mercedes’s claim of 6,5 L/100 km, but you should be able to average 8 L/100 km, which given the vehicle’s size and performance is not to be sneezed at. The engine, by the way, features two turbochargers, and is very refined.
The easygoing nature is also evident when cruising. The ML 250 uses a traditional steel suspension with anti-dive and anti-squat as well as stabiliser bars to deliver exceptional ride comfort, even on those big wheels. It remains supple and composed, even when the quality of road surface deteriorates badly. Of course, this being a 4Matic model, full-time all-wheel drive is standard, but it’s really only there to come to the rescue in low-grip conditions (muddy, icy etc) rather than endowing the ML with true off-road ability. In any event, the ground clearance of 191 mm is quite limited and there’s no low-range.
Mercedes-Benz ML 250 - VerdictWhile the first-generation ML, which made its debut in 1997, was a groundbreaking car for Mercedes-Benz, it was however not quite up to the brand’s traditional levels of quality and refinement. The second-generation model was a vast improvement, and remained competitive right until the end. This new model does not represent as major a leap, but nevertheless refines and hones the ML offering even further. As a luxurious, safe and efficient premium SUV, there’s precious little wrong with it. It just needs a bit more oomph.
- Great fuel economy
- Cabin space
- Build quality
- Ride comfort
- Sparse standard equipment
- Lazy performance
Fast factsEngine: 2,1-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel Power: 150 kW @ 4 200 rpm Torque: 500 Nm @ 1 600-1 800 rpm Transmission: Seven-speed automatic Wheels: 18-inch alloy Top speed: 210 km/h0-100 km/h: 9,0 seconds Fuel economy: 6,5 L/100 km
- BMW X5 xDrive30d Steptronic: Unlike the Mercedes which prioritises fuel economy, the emphasis with the BMW remains on performance and dynamic finesse. Consequently it feels the livelier and more agile SUV, but it’s not nearly as economical (on paper).
- Lexus RX450h F-Sport: The Lexus remains an odd-ball choice, but if it’s ultimate efficiency you’re after is worth considering. It matches the Mercedes’s claimed consumption but in reality is thirstier. On the other hand, it is loaded with features.
- Volkswagen Touareg 3,0 V6 TDI BlueMotion Tiptronic: The Touareg may lack a prestige badge on the nose, but it’s a very, very good car with a good balance of luxury and comfort features and the VW Group’s impressive 3,0-litre turbodiesel engine. A steal second-hand.