Mercedes M-Class 4×4 (2005 – 2012) expert review

By Mark Nichol, 10th October 2009

The verdict

The M-Class is a road-biased 4x4, making it a refined, comfortable and spacious family car. It comes with big running costs, though, and it’s not as good to drive as the BMW X5.

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Expert rating:

3.8

Pros

  • Very comfortable on most surfaces
  • Quiet, powerful diesel engines
  • Masses of cabin and luggage space

Cons

  • Limited off-road ability
  • There’s no seven-seat option
  • Some cabin trim is below par

Full Review

1. Exterior

The latest Mercedes M-Class is certainly more visually arresting than the blocky car it replaced, with sharp front-end styling thanks to the bold grille and sculpted headlamps. It hides its bulk well, and for us stays on the right side of brash. The M-Class is pitched at the luxury on-road SUV market – rather than being a proper off-roader – so all versions get big alloy wheels and, relatively speaking, low ground clearance.

Our rating: 4

2. Interior

Although the cabin is beginning to date a little compared to newer Mercedes models like the E-Class and even the C-Class, the M-Class feels, for the most part, like a luxury car. There are a lot of buttons, though, both on the dashboard and steering wheel, which take some getting used to. Plus there are some hard plastics for the lower half of the cabin, which you wouldn’t find in many cars of similar price and prestige. The driving position is excellent; that well-worn maxim about a high driving position and the good visibility it affords rings true here.

Our rating: 3

3. Practicality

The previous M-Class offered an extra pair of seats for the boot, whereas this one doesn’t. That will seem remiss on Mercedes’ part for some buyers. Five people will be well accommodated in the big Merc, as will all their luggage – the 833-litre boot is enormous. (Compare that to 695 litres for the E-Class Estate.) The split-folding rear bench seat folds flat, unlocking over 2,000 litres of space, while the cabin accommodates everyday oddments well. There are nets on the front seat backs, a large glove compartment and a big central storage box.

Our rating: 5

4. Ride and handling

Unlike sporty SUVs, such as the Porsche Cayenne, this Mercedes is built primarily for comfort. The soft ride is luxurious by nature, gliding over roads in a soothing, level-bodied fashion. Serious potholes have it bouncing on its springs, but that’s all. It’s quiet too, keeping engine, road and wind noise at bay, which adds to the sense of calm. Try to throw it around a corner and you’ll encounter body roll and numb steering – if that’s your style, best look at the Porsche instead. Although it’s no off-road machine, the ML’s 4×4 drivetrain can easily deal with winter snow.

Our rating: 4

5. Performance

Of the three engines, the 5.5-litre petrol unit in the ML500 is the one to go for if speed is your thing – it breaks six seconds to 62mph. However, both diesels have mountains of pulling power at very low revs and should provide all the flexibility you need. The seven-speed automatic gearbox shifts smoothly and quickly, too. Both diesels are 3-litre V6 units, though you’ll find the 228bhp ML350 CDI responds better in the mid-range than the 201bhp ML300. All engines are adequate, but some are more adequate than others.

Our rating: 4

6. Running costs

Avoid the ML500 if your bank balance is any sort of issue, because you’ll be lucky to see even 20mpg unless you’re always on the motorway. The official average economy of both diesels is 32.5mpg – not too bad for a big 4×4, and we found economy in the high twenties the norm. All versions command plenty in VED though, sitting in bands L and M, and Mercedes main dealer servicing is not cheap. Nor is insurance – the lowest group is 43 for the ML300, and the ML500 is in supercar group 50.

Our rating: 2

7. Reliability

Only once has the M-Class been recalled without other Mercedes models being included too – for an automatic tailgate glitch in 2009. Mechanically the car has proved sound, with no troubling issues reported – these are engines, gearboxes and electronics used across a wide range of Mercedes models. The M-Class was introduced at a time when Mercedes was trying to shake a reputation for patchy quality, so build quality is excellent.

Our rating: 4

8. Safety

In 2008 the M-Class was awarded a five-star Euro NCAP rating, and received high praise from the safety body for its ‘Pre-Safe’ crash protection system. It senses an imminent accident and takes mitigating protective measures like pre-tensioning the seatbelts and closing the windows. Stability control, anti-lock brakes and a cabin stuffed with airbags are standard. This is one very safe car indeed.

Our rating: 5

9. Equipment

Three equipment levels comprise the range: SE, Sport and Grand Edition. As you’d guess, the latter is packed with kit, including a full leather interior, 20-inch alloys, reversing camera and satellite navigation. SE models have synthetic leather seats, alloy wheels, an automatic gearbox, cruise control, climate control and a multi-function steering wheel. Sport adds sportier trim and is largely a cosmetic upgrade. Sat-nav is a pricey option though.

Our rating: 3

10. Why buy?

The M-Class makes a very comfortable, spacious and prestigious family car, and one that will provide the security of four-wheel drive during the winter months. By not pretending to be a sports car it becomes one of the most relaxing big 4×4s on the market, while not quite up there with the Range Rover for absolute luxury or premium appeal.

Our rating: 3

Expert review 3.8stars

  • Exterior4
  • Interior3
  • Practicality5
  • Ride and handling4
  • Performance4
  • Running costs4
  • Reliability2
  • Safety4
  • Equipment5
  • Why buy?3

Our recommendations

Best on a budget:

ML300 CDI BlueEfficiency SE

Hardly a budget car, but the cheapest M-Class

Best-seller:

ML350 CDI BlueEfficiency Sport

Nicer wheels and punchier diesel engine

Blow the budget:

ML500 Sport

Rapid 5.5-litre engine and big costs

This Mercedes is built primarily for comfort