Britain’s Range Rover had the luxury 4WD market all to itself for many years until the Germans finally entered the arena. Led by the M-Class, Mercedes’ first luxury SUV, this market segment has become highly competitive. There are now also entrants from Mercedes’ biggest rivals, BMW and Audi.
Mercedes-Benz M-Class arrived in Australia in September 1997 and has sold well since then thanks to a combination of image, price (more about this in a moment) and genuine 4WD ability.
While the M-Class is used by most owners as a luxury station wagon rather than a 4WD, if you choose the right off-road packages it is pretty competent on unsealed surfaces. You wouldn’t tackle Jeep’s Rubicon Trail in an M-Class, but it will cope with far tougher conditions than likely to be attempted by 99 per cent of owners
Why mention the famed ultra-tough Rubicon Trail? Because the Mercedes SUV was primarily aimed at the American market – and is made in the USA.
Build quality was poor in the early days, but following some serious overhauls in the factory systems things improved greatly. Vehicles from the early 2000 update are noticeably better than the original units.
The body on the original vehicle had a fair bit of movement, even squeaks and rattles in the really rough stuff, but was stiffened up for the year 2000 model.
The high centre of gravity when compared to a car reduces the cornering ability of the big Mercedes 4WD on sealed roads. But electronic aids in the form of traction and stability controls make it cling to the road remarkably well. Amazingly, the big Merc M-class corners safely at speeds far higher than are likely to be attempted by the average owner.
The generation-two models (W164) replaced the original W163 in October 2006 and the gen-three (W166) came to us in April 2012. Each version increased the stylishness of the vehicle, but put ever more emphasis on on-road performance. However, the Off-Road Pro packages are there for those who want to get down and dirty in the serious stuff.
There’s good interior space and the boot is a good size. As is the norm in the car business each model was larger than the previous, came with more a luxurious finish – and sold in greater numbers.
Mercedes-Benz offers a staggering range of V6 and V8 petrol and engines. Diesels come with five or six cylinders, with the great majority featuring the V6 powerplants. Automatic transmissions are fitted to all vehicles, with five forward ratios in the early days and seven since the introduction of the W164 in 2006.
At the top of the performance tree are the AMG variants of the M-Class. Improbable as they may seem, the ML 55 AMG and later the ML 63 AMG rocketships are much loved in Australia and ours is one of the world’s biggest market on a population basis.
The Mercedes-Benz dealer network is very well established in Australia. Spare parts aren’t overly expensive for what the vehicle is.
Insurance charges are surprisingly moderate for an imported German luxury vehicle, reflecting some of the cost cutting that has gone into the manufacture of the M-class.
Few vehicles are more popular on the Australian used-car market than Mercedes-Benzes with full service records. You will usually be asked to pay more, but wise men say they are well worth the additional money.
If you don’t want to be seen driving a large 4WD why not consider a Mercedes-Benz R-Class. These are much more conventional-station wagon in appearance than the M-Class, but are driven by all four wheels and share many major components under the skin.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Very few M-Class will have been used in serious off-road conditions; clues are light scratches to the body sides caused by squeezing past bushes and trees, scars on and/or under the bumper corners or scrapes on the underbody protection plates.
Carting kids around the suburbs isn’t all that easy on a 4WD, either. So have a good look over the interior, particularly at the seats, door pockets and the door controls.
Make sure the engine starts easily, even the old-style turbo-diesels in the first models only take a second or two on the glow plugs.
Check that the engine idles smoothly from the moment it fires up.
On your road test make sure the engine pulls strongly without any initial hesitation, diesels won’t be as responsive as petrols but if you feel one is too slow to react be very careful.
The automatic transmission should work almost imperceptibly, even when worked hard by the driver.
Try engaging all the 4WD modes to make sure that they operate.
Having done your preliminary inspections, always call on the services of a professional before committing yourself.
Expect to pay from $8000 to $15,000 for a 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320; $16,000 to $23,000 for a 2004 ML270 CDI Classic; $28,000 to $38,000 for a 2006 ML280 CDI; $42,000 to $55,000 for a 2008 ML280 CDI Luxury; $54,000 to $72,000 for a 2011 ML300 CDI; $85,000 to $113,000 for a 20122 ML500 Luxury; and $115,000 to $155,000 for a 2012 ML63 AMG.
CAR BUYING TIP
Anyone buying an upmarket vehicle without a professional inspection – or a large budget on standby – is taking a major risk.