Driving from Dunedin to Auckland on a tank of fuel would be quite an ask of even an eco-optimised small car, so should be a challenge well beyond a two-tonne luxury sports utility.
Yet this is a feat the most fuel-efficient member of the new M-Class range could be up to achieving. There are two reasons why: firstly, the new M-Class 250CDI runs the smallest engine yet seen in the M, a turbo-diesel of a "mere" 2.1 litres capacity; secondly, an extra-large 91-litre fuel tank has been optioned for our market.
In what has become the way of the modern motoring world, all variants, even the monster AMG 63, adopt efficiencies - stop-start, better aerodynamics, seven-speed auto, electro-mechanical steering, lighter suspension and body panels.
The 250CDI has emphatically seen the most extreme action, though the "downsize" is not a complete performance-killer. Indeed, modern turbo-charging allows this variant to match the power and torque outputs of the now defunct 2987cc six-cylinder entry diesel in the old range, while delivering a 30% reduction in fuel burn.
The twin-turbo 350CDI also smartens up as well, with engine capacity and maximum power unchanged, but torque up a massive 80Nm. It is faster than before, but again, cleaner and thriftier - overall claimed consumption falling by almost 25%.
Mercedes New Zealand general manager Ben Giffin is confident the 250CDI will achieve 40% of total 2012 sales, although he expects customers who prefer towing will still gravitate towards the 350CDI, since it (and all the petrol editions) is rated to haul 3265kg against the four's 3000kg.
The bi-turbo V8 petrols that top the range will be minor players in our diesel-centric SUV market, but for the core-Kiwi following for the obligatory AMG product.
Indeed, demand for the $197,900, 380kW/700Nm 5.5-litre ML 63 AMG is already challenging the supply opportunity. Most AMG buyers are also ticking off on a $10,200 performance pack that adds 24kW and 60Nm and a $2600 "driver's pack" that increases the top speed from 250kmh to 280kmh.
Whatever the variant, there will be little problem picking the new model from old. The styling has been swept up, with many cues clearly taken from the sedan line-up. The interior is more car-like and smartens up with leather (real cow and man-made), Bluetooth, sat nav, a reversing camera,
voice control and cruise control as standard.
The chassis has preceded the car by a year, being shared with the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the Mercedes-Benz feels lighter on its feet than its American cousin. The base dynamic formula can also be enhanced by optioning to Airmatic air suspension, which comes with two selectable
damping modes and, beyond that, active anti-roll bars.
Options include a $3500 off-road equipment pack (low range, snow-sport and manual mode, differential lock) similar to Jeep's Overland system. Without it, the M-Class will wallow in the mire, but take-up is expected to be low.
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