Designed in Germany but built in America, the new 4x4 from Mercedes is good-looking - and less expensive than you'd expect.
THERE ARE several unusual things about Merc's new M-class 4x4. For a start, its off-road ability is almost incidental. Everyone knows that butch sports utilities rarely stray from terra firma, so why compromise on-road performance? Mercedes hasn't. Here's an off-roader for the autobahn.

Second, the M-class has style. Gone are the severe military looks of the old G-wagen with which Mercedes fought a losing battle against the Range Rover. Third, it's less expensive than you might expect of a premium vehicle wearing a three-pointed star. Fourth, the quality and finish fall below those expected of a Merc - perhaps because the M-class is the first passenger car Mercedes has built outside Germany. But to assemble them in Alabama makes sense, given that 60 per cent will be sold in the US, and fewer than a quarter in Europe.

Technically, the ML320 is everything you'd expect - able, refined, sophisticated, comfortable. It's quick, too - though the ML430 V8, coming next spring, will be quicker. M-B's contention that its M-class is as car-like to drive and handle as a two-ton off-roader can get is irrefutable.

Driving all four wheels through a smooth-changing five-speed automatic gearbox (there's no manual option), the lusty V6 engine gives lively acceleration and effortless cruising. Keep the revs down and quietness is another virtue. There's little evidence of the wallow or agitation that can afflict off- roaders. I didn't much like the dead, mushy steering, but the cornering composure and tenacity are exemplary.

The M320 relies on electronically-governed traction control for off- road grip, which is more than adequate for most owners' needs. So is the articulation of road-biased all-wishbone suspension that gives such a smooth ride. There's little to compromise comfort. You sit tall, with a commanding view out, in voluptuous front seats.

Ergonomically, the M320 has one advantage over all other Mercs: there's a separate right-hand stalk for the wipers. And about time, too.

If not the roomiest 4x4, it is hardly spatially challenged. Three in the back is not a squeeze (though five would be with the optional third row of seats). But the big boot's sill - too high for our arthritic Labrador - hampers loading. Nor does the quality of trim and fittings impress for a car likely to cost the thick end of pounds 35,000 with extras. Think of the M320 as a four-wheel drive E-class saloon on stilts and you have its measure. Beware, Range Rover, there's a Merc about.

SPECIFICATIONS

Make and model: Mercedes-Benz ML320, from pounds 31,190 on the road.

Engine: 3199cc V6, 18 valves, 218bhp at 5600rpm. Transmission: five-speed automatic gearbox (with high and low range), all-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 112mph (governed), 0-60mph in 9.2 seconds.

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