If you are a monk stop reading. This story won't be of much interest to you. This is a tale of pure indulgence. For the rest of us sinners let's begin. There are a few status symbols that explicitly spell luxury. A beefy SUV is definitely one of them. Especially when it has a three-pointed star on the grille staring at you. The Mercedes M-Class is an SUV that commands instant respect, especially in India where there exists an age-old obsession with the brand. The M-Class has sold over 1500 units so far in India and now Mercedes are upping the ante with the new M-Class in an attempt to increase their footprint in the luxury SUV segment. So when we got our hands on the ML 350 CDI we decided to take it to meet something equally premium the Alphonso mango. And we wanted to get the best ones. So we headed to Ratnagiri to get the king of the king of the mangoes. It's a journey which helped us examine the ML from up close and for a long period of time. Let's get to the pulp of the matter (Mango story. Cue mango jokes)
The W166 is the third generation of the ML and in its new avatar the first thing that you notice is that it has become more aggressive. It has grown in size. It's longer (23mm more), wider (15mm more) but shorter in height (19mm less). The wide expanse of a bonnet just got wider and now it even gets two scoops accentuating the mean look. The headlamp assembly design has been tweaked with the new layout curvier than before. The LED daytime running lamps too have been tweaked and are now longer. The lavish chrome on the front fender further adds to the aggression. At the rear the tail lamp assembly too has been changed and they now sport an LED strip across them. The model that we got was from the Edition 1 lot - the first 100 units which are the AMG version. But don't get excited, it only gets the AMG 20-inch wheels, body skirts and seats.
Let's get inside then. The white Designo seats are definitely what catch your attention first. The two-tone leather upholstery is as premium as it can get. So much so that you wouldn't fault the buyers if they didn't remove the plastic wrappers off the seats. The seats are very comfortable to sink into and the driver's and front passenger's can be adjusted using buttons on the door, and it comes with a memory package with three settings that remember everything from seat position to the steering position. The steering wheel gets a mix of leather and wood finish, more wood than before.
The centre console has been completely modified in the new gen ML. It now has a bigger 7-inch colour infotainment display screen. The infotainment system, or the Comand Online system as Mercedes calls it, has a 10GB music storage space, SD slot for memory cards and even has a voice operated control (Linguatronic) using which you can search for tracks. This display is housed between the trapezoidal air con vents as compared to the earlier layout where the circular vents were placed above the display screen.
The steering mounted controls too have changed from a circular layout to a, well, trapezoidal setting. The centre armrest which splits open at the touch of a button houses the USB port. The centre console also houses the dial to control the infotainment system and the buttons for changing the ride quality settings. We'll come to that later. In the rear seat the passengers apart from the centre also get air con vents on the B-pillar. More cooling? Our country needs it. Rear passengers get a centre armrest with cup holders but no controls for the music system. So this then is a vehicle where the owner drives it. There is a minor transmission tunnel intrusion which will be a problem for the third passenger but then again talking about three in the rear seat in an ML would be blasphemy wouldn't it? The two that sit there will get added knee room, not just because the vehicle is longer, but because the front seats have been carved out from the back. And in the third row...
The old ML didn't have a third row and this doesn't get one either. But the advantage is that you get a spacious 690-litre boot (210 mangoes) which can be further increased to a huge 2010 litres (612 mangoes!) by folding the seats. A new addition in this ML is the automatic boot opening mechanism or the Easy-pack tailgate as it's called. You can open the boot using either the switch on the driver's door, the button on the remote control or on the tailgate itself. Once the boot is opened it also has a button on the inside of the tailgate which can be used to shut it. As a safety feature there is a sensor which sends the tailgate in the reverse direction when it comes across any obstruction. On the whole a very well-put, classy looking cabin that give you the upmarket feel that you expect from a vehicle of this stature.
Now to get to the kernel of the matter. The 3.0-litre turbo V6 diesel engine produces a maximum power of 258PS at 3600rpm (27PS more than before) and 620Nm from 1600rpm all the way to 2400rpm (80Nm more than before). This engine sports the BlueEfficiency tag which means its uprated and optimised to improve fuel efficiency.
When you start the engine the quietness of the diesel mill speaks of its refined nature. Push down the drive select lever, engage drive and if you floor the throttle, the response is instant due to the massive amount of torque available at such a low rpm. You don't realise you are sitting in a two tonne vehicle as it lurches forward. And for its weight it is relatively quick. It reaches the hundred mark in just 7.5 seconds. To give you a comparison the Mini Cooper S takes 7.61 seconds to get to the three figure mark. The fuel efficiency now stands at 10.75kmpl in the city and 13.8kmpl on the highway giving it a combined efficiency of 11.51kmpl. But these figures have been achieved without the ECO start/stop function, the use of which will improve the city figures.
The start/stop system is activated by pressing the ECO button on the centre console and it is quite effective with the engine shutting off as soon as the brakes are employed. And as soon as you release the pressure off the brake pedal the engine starts again. The two overdrive gears help in achieving the impressive highway figures. The engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic gearbox. The 7G-Tronic Plus will be available as standard on the ML with the direct select lever on the steering column.
There are also paddles provided behind the steering wheel which can be used to manually change gears. While in Drive mode if any of the paddles is used to change gears the manual mode gets activated and then to get back into the automatic mode you have to pull and hold the up shift paddle. But while manually shifting gears you don't get the desired quickness which you expect. The delay in shift is similar to what you get when changing songs using the buttons on the steering wheel (No clue why that has a delay). But you learn to accommodate this delay and then overtaking becomes a breeze because you still have that massive torque at your disposal and you can muscle your way through anything.
Before we start on this we have to register that this is a 2175kg SUV. Just stating it once again. The steering is incredibly light and doesn't give you the feeling of being in an SUV. A straight and smooth line is easy fodder for the ML. Minor undulations on the road are also taken care of easily by the Airmatic air suspension and the Adaptive Damping System. Weight-optimised aluminium components in the damping system along with the new double wishbone set up at the front and a multi-link at the rear ensures a comfortable ride quality.
But the problem arises when the roads are bad. Here the ML seems to behave like it's on hot coal. You get a lot of twitching, almost as if the weight causes the ML to displace the stones from underneath it rather than go over it. It's also not very happy doing high speeds. Though the claimed top speed is 224kmph by around 150kmph you feel a substantial bit of body roll which discourages you from pushing it any further. But all this reluctance disappears when you flick it into a corner. On the way to those mangoes, we came across the Amba Ghat (ironic), a long stretch of twisties where the horns come out. And the new ML was up to the task. All the slackness that it exhibits on the highway disappears in an instant. It transforms from a mammoth into a hungry feline. The muscles tighten and it dives into the corner with intent. The steering gives you precise feedback due to the new electromechanical system which weights it up according to the situation.
The 4Matic all-wheel drive system along with the ESP and 4ETS (Electronic traction system) kick in, ensuring the required wheels get the power. While till this point, on the straights you were pushing it, on corners the ML turns around and urges you to push. It's like a complete change in character. This is a marked improvement from the disobedient tales of the older ML around corners. The new ML also boasts of an 11.80-metre turning radius which Mercedes claims is the smallest in this segment. I wonder how it will be on the Buddh International Circuit! But for straight roads, while there is a lot of technology keeping you stable, I would have liked the ride quality to be a little more cushy.
The new M-Class comes with a host of features designed to provide you with comfort and safety. To begin with you get two modes of travel sport and comfort which you can toggle between while the vehicle is moving. It also offers an Airmatic button using which you can raise the ride height to go over boulders at a mango farm. You can also use the downhill speed regulation to go down a steep gradient when trying to find a perfect location to shoot in a mango farm situated on a hill. It also has a hill crawl button which helps when you are climbing over an uneven surface like a rocky path. You also a reverse camera which is a first in the ML. It also has the fancy parking assist which you can use to impress people. In terms of safety the ML has nine airbags all of which are available as standard. You get a proximity sensor on the dashboard which, through seven light bars (two red and five orange) indicate how close a person or a vehicle is to the ML.
It also has an Attention Assist system which detects signs of drowsiness and displays a coffee mug icon between the clocks. The Pre-safe system detects critical driving situations and initiates preventive measures front seat belts are reversibly tensioned, windows and sunroof are shut if necessary. This aids in effective deployment of seatbelts and air bags. In terms of creature comforts you get Thermotronic, automatic climate control which enables setting of different temperatures for individual passengers. But like Shumi put it, the most important bit is that it gets the 'aam' rest.
So coming back with a boot full of Alphonso mangoes in an M-Class what do we have to say. Not being a vehicle for the 'aam' aadmi the list of must-haves is quite extensive. So while the ML 350 does provide a lot of features it doesn't have, for example, cornering lamps or height adjustment for the projector headlamps which aren't powerful enough in the first place because these aren't HID units. The seats don't get coolers which is available in less expensive cars. The wood and leather combination on the steering wheel is not good for long drives. Just leather is better. But then there's the good part.
The ML 350 CDI Launch Edition is priced at Rs 66 lakh, 100 units of which will be sold, while the ML 350 CDI Bridging Edition is priced at Rs 56.90 lakh. Both prices ex-Delhi. For the extra price you get the AMG wheels, seats and side skirts. If you ignore that, the CBU model, with its much improved fuel efficiency and corner cravings and a plethora of features which come as standard fitment, is not a bad bargain at all. If we compare it with the competition BMW X5 (Xdrive3.0d, Rs 53.80 lakh), Audi Q7 (3.0 TDI, Rs 55.35 lakh), VW Touareg (Rs 51.85 lakh) and the Porsche Cayenne diesel (Rs 59.22 lakh), all prices ex-Delhi, the M-Class, in its aggressive avatar, does offer a strong alternative. If only they could tweak the ride quality to make it a little more plush in the comfort mode. Oh, what about the mangoes you ask? Burp...