Hochgurgl sounds more like a throat rinse but the small ski resort north of Innsbruck isn't a place you'd rinse out of your system easily. Perched on my balcony at the Top Hotel overlooking the amazing landscape I can't help but admire how Europeans make every effort to improve their life and lifestyle. The thought sprang up when I caught sight of dozens of snow machines littered across the slopes blowing snow onto the ground so that the skiing season in these parts could continue unaffected by the late onset of winter.
The thought lingers the following morning as I step inside the new Mercedes ML350CDI, an SUV in which several efforts have been made to improve a lifestyle choice. However while the M-Class was an SUV with limited off-road capabilities in its previous generations, things have changed considerably now. The new M-Class offers an enhanced 4WD system and as an option an entirely new on and off road package that has much superior go-anywhere abilities than ever before. It explains why a bunch of us journalists have come to this snowy hamlet set amidst some beautiful alpine scenes. The objective of this trip then is to experience the new off-road abilities of the new M-Class on snow and ice.
Time and again the M-Class has proved its calibre so improving on what is already an industry benchmark wasn't a very hard task. It was giving the M-Class a more diverse range of abilities that proved to be challenging to the engineers from Stuttgart. A challenge that was eventually surmounted by the improved 4MATIC all wheel drive system and the new on/off road package. So is it any good, or more to the point is it more interesting than before?
Honestly it's as boring as watching water dry off a floor thats just been mopped. Where safety is concerned the system works splendidly. We were driving on an icy road which thanks to the weather gods was receiving a fresh burst of snowfall just as we began driving. The thick fall reduced visibility and made the road even more treacherous but the system worked to the T. It cut off power the minute it sensed excessive wheel spin, redistributed power where it was needed, braked the wheel that had too much of it and generally kept the M-Class safe and smooth. That was boring, because in the middle of it all I did try tricking the system by shifting transmission modes between manual and automatic, as well as between the sports, economy and comfort driving modes. And this car was on standard winter tyres, not metal studded or decked with snow chains. Yet nothing changed, 4MATIC rules the ML with an iron fist.
That begs the question, whats new in the system, what makes it better than before? The simpler answer is better electronics, the more complex one is the enhanced centre differential. The electronics use more advanced algorithms to ensure quicker networking between the several sensors. This allows the various safety and driving aids to understand the situation, respond and react faster than ever before. The centre diff on the other hand has been optimised to distribute torque faster to the wheels that need it, improving handling characteristics.
The optional on and off road package now offers six driving modes, one automatic mode that will detect the conditions and setup the vehicle accordingly. There are two off-road modes and three on-road modes for winter, sport and towing. The on/off road package also comes with new hardware. There's a stronger underguard, a two stage transfer case with low ratio, an inter-axle diff lock and enhanced AIRMATIC suspension that allows higher ground clearances (max 285mm) than the standard system as well as better fording depth.
And yet the M-Class is only fun once you turn the system off. That's when you realise just how well the chassis has been tuned. It's a new chassis, wider and longer than before though the wheelbase hasn't changed. That means you have more space within the cabin but it also means there's more mass hanging over the edges thanks to the increase in width and length that upsets dynamics. And yet the new M-Class isn't bulky or cumbersome. The steering is light and adequately weighted to make it feel supple at low speeds and precise and accurately measured at high speeds. Even when you kick the tail out on icy roads, the light steering helps catch the slide easily while the well controlled body roll does not upset the SUV further. Inisde the sense of the rear end sliding out on a SUV this large is a bit unnerving but from the outside its not dramatic at all, until you switch off the traction control and intentionally allow it to drift.
The suspension offers a choice between ride and handling at the touch of a button, though I found the sport mode adequate for all most all driving situations. It in fact felt better than the comfort mode which has this very upsetting jelly like wiggle transmitted into the cabin when the roads get a bit undulating.
The engine and transmission options do not change for India, actually there isnt an option at all for now and the M-Class will be powered by just the 3.5-litre, 306 horsepower V6 diesel. It's a competent engine that has found wide acceptance with its audience here and even globally, though the engine to really look forward to is the 2.2-litre 4-cylinder with 4th generation common rail direct injection. It makes a massive 500Nm of torque and is touted to be extremely frugal thanks to the 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission. That engine unfortunately is still around two years away from India as it requires cleaner diesel than what we have available here to reap all its benefits.
So the new ML is expected to be launched in India in the first quarter of 2012. It will definitely have more takers than before, but if it's enough to better it's rivals the X5 and Q7 remains to be seen.
Visually it makes a bigger impact than the X5, it looks imposing but has a sense of style that takes a bit of time to appreciate. It does not have the raw in your face aggression of the new Q7 for instance but thanks to imbibing the design language of the SLS AMG, especially that massive grille, the muscular fenders and the articulate bumpers it attracts a lot of attention. The side profile is more elegant though a bit boxy like the GL or the R-Class. What matters however is the interiors and the cabin is plush, luxurious and dynamic. The build quality is fantastic. The styling very nicely executed and this cabin feels like a properly expensive place to be in. Contrary to popular demand though the ML will only be available as a 5-seater, not a 7-seater which made its rival the Audi Q7 a much sought after SUV.
That said the combination of black leather and brightwork is contemporary and I quite liked the combination though there are a few plastic bits around the dashboard that felt cheap and tacky. Yet I liked the stalks and control buttons and dials with their chrome inserts which are more tactile and feel sophisticated to touch and operate. I hope the ML which will also be manufacured in India will not have any build issues like we have seen on other models built here.
There is a new COMAND system which has improved but is nowhere as intuitive or simple to use as BMW's iDrive or Audi's system. The new M-Class however gets the new Thermotronic automatic climate control system. In addition to control various climate zones within the M-Class, it also has some unique and innovative features. It can for instance be pre-programmed for individual settings. But even cleverer than that is its pollutant sensor which automatically detects an increase in carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide levels outside the car, says while driving through a tunnel and shifts the car into recirculation mode to keep the air within the cabin pure. Another much appreciated feature will be the cup holders in the centre console which can now be heated or cooled to either keep your coffee hot or your chocolates solid over long journeys.
It would be interesting to watch how the battle for dominance of the premium luxury SUV category pans out once the M-Class is launched. But what I am more interested in now is the next comparison, we've done the high and dry bit and the M-Class has proved its mettle in both.
All that's left now are the wetlands and if the M-Class can wash over the competition in those conditions it would prove once and for all that there is no better all rounder, that can make it the ultimate lifestyl