Sport-utility vehicles are still the rage these days, explaining why there are so many on offer in the luxury car market.
Audi, BMW and Range Rover have everything from compact to enormous SUVs. And it won't stop here, as the trend is now diversifying into the SUV-coupe sector.
Mercedes-Benz also has a decent platter, although it's hardly relevant in countries like Thailand.
The GL-class, for one, is deemed extravagant for Thai roads. The GLK is not made in right-hand-drive form, despite being a potential rival for the Audi Q5 and BMW X3. The G-class, on the other hand, is much too utilitarian.
That leaves Mercedes only with the ML-class, a premium mid-size SUV that has never really caught the attention of Thai punters despite being a credible alternative to the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport.
Four-pot diesel helps quell thirst for fuel.
But with the latest-generation ML-class, that could all change, for Mercedes has managed to lower its price to a level that most intended competitors can't cope with.
A crucial step Mercedes-Benz has taken in bringing the ML's prices to a more affordable level is the use of a four-cylinder engine and local assembly. With the exception of the Lexus RX270, the smallest motors all rivals offer are mostly six-potters.
Such a strategy helps the ML on the tax front, the 2.1-litre engine of the ML250 is subject to just 35% tax _ some 5-15% less than what its opponents are levied.
That's why the ML250 costs just 4.49 million baht _ more than 1.5 million less than the outgoing ML300 which utilised a higher-taxed V6 diesel motor.
The most immediate question you start to ponder with the new ML250 is whether that downsized four-cylinder diesel engine can cope in a package tipping the scales at over 2 tonnes.
The good news is that it can. Strapped with a turbo like in the C250/E250 CDI models, the ML250 has no shortage of power in real-world usage. It accelerates well and bags enough overtaking power within the legal limits.
It's only when you apply excessive speeds that you start to miss its heartier and more refined ML300 predecessor, as well as rivals like the X5 which employs a straight-six diesel-turbo.
Nevertheless, the ML250 still remains effective in performance terms (with strong brakes to match), crucially aided by the fact that you get good economy for a vehicle of such size.
A 15kpl or so average rating is quite impressive for a big car like the ML. The motor is another good lesson in engine-downsizing. SUVs, in the first place, are more about sensible, rather than fire-cracking, performance.
Driving environment has tidy layout; build quality is generally impressive.
There's also the option to turn on the Eco mode in city driving to enable the ML's engine to automatically stop and start at the lights.
Like in its predecessor, the driving characteristics logically lean on the comfort side. The steering is effortless around town and continues to be light at higher speeds.
Keener drivers will find a crisper handling in the X5, or even the Porsche Cayenne. Yet as an SUV, there's still much to cherish about the ML's easy-going attitude. As well, the ML feels more polished than ever in handling terms.
The same goes for the ride which is cosseting at most times. Our test ML came with Airmatic suspension, a useful feature you might think, whose Sport mode helps flatten the ride when you want it to do so.
However, we found it to be quite unnecessary on Thai roads because the Sport's firm setting seemingly works only on ultra-smooth motorways and country roads.
Speaking of that, Airmatic is part of the Sport AMG package costing an additional 1.5 million baht.
The 21-inch wheels, for one, really helps out the visuals of the ML and don't necessarily harm the ride. Of course, they can be felt on rutted roads, but it isn't uncomfortable. This should be great news for the standard ML running on smaller 19-inchers.
Other notable highlights of the Sport trim are user-friendly boot components, parking assistance systems, glass roof, bi-xenon lights and side airbags for rear occupants.
Rear seats are now better to sit in.
One way or the other, the Sports AMG pack sounds expensive and should be considered as lavish rather than necessary.
Pity those airbags couldn't come as standard in the regular version.
But if you think that cars costing 5 million baht should come fully specced, make your day with Sports AMG.
The basic package and dimensions of the ML hasn't changed that much, although it's the details that make it a better SUV than before.
The familiar shape of the outgoing model has been maintained, just that the grille, lights and bumpers, as such, have been modernised.
That also goes for the interior that sees the same, uncluttered driving environment whose gear lever optimally remains mounted on the steering column.
Build quality feels more solid now (except for the feeble instrument cowl behind the steering) and the trim and colours are made more contemporary, what some might call "modern Italian" in furniture-speak.
One shortcoming in the ML has been fixed: the awkwardly angled rear seats have been replaced with chairs (that can recline slightly); they are now better to sit in.
The boot itself is cavernous and flat when the rear seats fold down. In short, the ML is highly practical as a five-seat SUV to avoid being picked on by any of its non-seven-seat opponents.
Which, in the end, makes contemplating the ML more worthwhile than before. There's a sensible blend of performance and economy, comfy road manners, highly livable interior and luxury pedigree _ all at a price that is certainly likely to make rivals toe the line.
AT A GLANCE
Styling .................................... 7/10The ML-class maintains the familiar shape of its predecessor but gets newly accentuated details.
Performance ............................ 7/10
Downsized four-pot diesel is frugal and has sufficient punch for real-world use.
Handling and ride ..................... 8/10
It's an easy SUV to handle at most times, while the ride is generally comfortable.
Practicality ............................. 8/10
As a five-seat SUV, the ML-class has lots of cabin and boot space.
Safety kit ................................ 9/10
Opt for the Sports AMG package, as tested here, and you get a comprehensive list of safety features.
VERDICT ................................. 8/10
One might question the small engine in a big package like this ML250, but it's effective enough in the real world. Combine this with competitive price and good levels of comfort and practicality, the ML250 is a sound choice in the premium mid-size SUV segment.
Boot is capacious and is flat when seats fold down.
The driving characteristics logically lean on the comfort side
About the author
- Writer: Richard Leu
Position: Motoring news Editor