Segment buster

Updated: Jan 5 2013, 05:35am hrs
The new Mercedes-Benz ML 250 CDI has a smaller engine and a price to rival cars from a segment below, including BMW X3 and Volvo XC60. Is it too good to be true

Whats new

On the face of it, the Mercedes-Benz M-class seems a bit out of place alongside the BMW X3 and the Volvo XC60. It is a full size bigger than the other two SUVs and has traditionally been a rival to the larger (and more expensive) X5 and XC90 from BMW and Volvo, respectively. So why are we comparing these SUVs The answer lies in the 250 CDI badge on the tailgate of the M-class. This recently launched version of the M-class comes with a smaller and less powerful engine than the ML 350 CDI, but it also costs a full R13 lakh less than it!

That means you can have an ML for what youd pay for the more powerful diesel versions of the smaller X3, XC60 and Audi Q5. Wed have liked to include the Q5 3.0 TDI in this test as well, but Audi did not have the updated version of the car that is scheduled to go on sale later this month.

What we seek to find out is if the smaller-hearted ML is too much of a compromise in terms of performance, or if it is actually a well-rounded luxury SUV that just happens to be well priced too

What are they like to drive

ML 250 CDI ****

X3 xDrive 30d *****

XC60 D5 ****

The ML 250 CDI is powered by a 201bhp, 2.2-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine rather than the 255bhp, 3.0-litre, six-cylinder diesel in the ML 350 CDI. But before you question this engines refinement, you should know it is the quietest and smoothest engine in this test.

Whats more, its performance is also surprisingly sprightly. Sure, the ML 250 CDIs 8.8-second (approximately) 0-100kph time makes it around a second slower than the ML 350 CDI, but in most driving conditions you really cant feel the power deficit. To be honest, its only when you stomp down on the accelerator at high speeds that you find the ML 250 CDI takes some time to gather more pace. If theres a grouse, it is with the seven-speed automatic gearbox, which doesnt respond quickly enough to sudden changes in throttle input. Even tugging on the beautifully finished paddle-shifters doesnt help much to this end.

No such complaints with the BMW X3, whose eight-speed automatic gearbox is almost telepathic in the way it changes gears depending on the driving style you adopt. This and the 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engines impressive 258bhp of power make the X3 the fastest SUV in this trio, and by a considerable margin. Its 6.42-second 0-100kph time actually makes it quick enough to rival some sportscars! Theres also incredible pulling power at all speeds, so overtaking traffic is always just a prod of the accelerator away. But thats not to say the X3 is perfect in this section of our test because the engine is relatively noisy.

Volvos XC60, in this more powerful guise, comes with a 2.4-litre, five-cylinder diesel engine with 204bhp of power. Drive the XC60 in an unhurried manner, and youll like the engines wide spread of power and its ability to pull forward at all engine speeds. If theres a bugbear, its that the engine is a bit gruff and sounds strained when revved hard. The six-speed automatic gearbox also tends to feel a bit slow when you want instant power, and this reflects in the XC60s performance numbers as well. It is the slowest through the gears and also takes a relatively long 9.9 seconds from 0-100kph.

Ride & handling

ML 250 CDI ****

X3 xDrive 30d ****

XC60 D5 ****

Built for the smooth tarmac of Europe, each of the three SUVs feel a bit unsettled on the small undulations that are commonplace on our roads. The Mercedes ML 250 CDI uses steel springs instead of the ML 350 CDIs air suspension, but that hasnt taken away much from the ride quality. It does feel a bit firm at low speeds, but it gets progressively better as you go faster. In true Merc fashion, the ML feels brilliant at highway speeds, and much of the credit goes to the ease with which its suspension absorbs bumps. Youll also like the way the steering weighs up and goes from being very light at parking speeds to weighty and confidence-inspiring at high speeds. Theres also a nice fluidity with which the Merc changes direction. Its not sporty by any means, but it doesnt feel out of place in the bends like many SUVs of this size would. Pity that the brakes arent very reassuring.

Compared to the ML, the X3 feels decidedly sporty. It is agile, quick to change direction and relatively fun to drive on a twisty course. The steering also feels very well weighted at all speeds and, along with the suspension, can be fine-tuned to your liking. For most of the driving, we preferred to keep the X3 in Normal mode, where the steering feels light and the suspension is at its most absorbent. But even in this setting, the X3 tends to thump through bumps. This only gets worse when you switch to Sport or Sport+.

The Volvo XC60 also comes with three settings for its suspension and steering. In Comfort mode there is some stiffness at low speeds, but on the whole, the ride is still pliant. Advanced and Sport modes do aid handling with better body control, but even then it doesnt feel quite as entertaining as the X3. For its part, the steering feels well weighted on the move, but is heavier than the BMWs and Mercs at crawling speeds.

Off-road abilities on the three SUVs are quite limited at best. All three get all-wheel drive and hill-descent control, but the ML goes one step extra with an off-road mode that tweaks the ABS and ESP settings for rougher terrain.

It is interesting to note none of them gets a full-size spare wheelthe ML 250 and XC60 feature space-saver spares and the X3, which uses run-flat tyres, comes without a spare wheel at all.

What are they like inside

ML 250 CDI ****

X3 xDrive 30d ****

XC60 D5 ****

The Merc ML has a high-set cabin and this means you need to use the footboard to climb in. But once inside, youll like the large and accommodating front seats for the comfort and great visibility they afford. Youll also like the dashboards elegant design, though we werent taken by the colour combination on our test car. However, the fantastic cabin quality, with millimetre-perfect panel fit and a sea of well-finished soft-touch plastics, really makes this a really special place to be. As expected, the ML is the most spacious SUV here and this is most evident when you slide into the back seat, where the crucial few centimetres of extra kneeroom and width make all the difference. The seat itself is very comfy and is the only one here that can be reclined. A near-flat floor also aids middle-passenger comfort.

If youve been in a BMW before, youll feel a sense of familiarity in the X3. The dashboard looks like it could have been lifted from just about any other car in the range. But thats no bad thing because it is logically laid out, with some neat detailing. Quality is really good too, with padded plastics for much of the cabin. A wide range of adjustments also makes it really easy to get comfy behind the X3s meaty steering wheel. However, rear-seat passengers will have to contend with a high centre tunnel and a seat that offers insufficient thigh support. Also, since the front seats extend quite low, rear passengers cant tuck their feet under these seats, which further hampers comfort.

The Volvos cabin may not be as adventurously styled as its exterior, but it still feels quite special. And thats largely to do with the XC60s tough build and good fit and finish. The dashboard is neat too, with the floating centre console being a unique element. Sadly, the plethora of buttons on that console can be confusing and hard to operate on the move. Where the Volvo does score big is seat comfort. The large, two-tone front seats are really comfy, while the well-shaped rear seat offers brilliant back and thigh support. But while the XC60 is a spacious car in its own right, it does lose out to the similarly sized X3 for rear kneeroom.

All three SUVs offer decent space for knick-knacks in the cabin, with big enough gloveboxes, bottle-holders in all four doors and storage bays between the front seats. The ML easily has the largest boot, though the X3 and XC60 dont do too badly on this front either.

Buying & owning

ML 250 CDI ****

X3 xDrive 30d ****

XC60 D5 ***

All three SUVs can be specified with extra features and equipment, and this could drastically change what you finally pay for them. However, if you compare their base prices, it is the Volvo XC60 D5 thats the cheapest, at R43.87 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), and the BMW X3 3.0d at R49.8 lakh thats the most expensive. Priced at R46.5 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the Mercedes-Benz ML 250 CDI splits the other two on price.

Volvo also sells the XC60 with a smaller 2.0-litre engine. Prices for this version start at a very competitive R36.47 lakh for the base Kinetic variant and extend to R40.87 lakh for the better-equipped Summum model. Like the Volvo, the BMW X3 also comes with a 2.0-litre version that is priced at R42.9 lakh. Mercedes-Benz M-class buyers who want more power have the option to buy the ML 350 CDI, which starts at R56.9 lakh.

Its important to note that Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volvo only have a presence in the larger Indian cities, so service can be an issue if you stay in a smaller town.

This is undoubtedly a bigger problem for XC60 buyers, because Volvo sells cars in just eight cities. In comparison, Mercedes and BMW have 31 and 28 showrooms nationwide, respectively. The Mercedes and BMW also better the Volvo in terms of warranty. Where the ML 250 CDI and X3 come with a two-year/unlimited-km warranties, the XC60s warranty runs for two-years/60,000km.

Equipment & safety

ML 250 CDI ***

X3 xDrive 30d ****

XC60 D5 ****

For all practical purposes, the ML 250 CDI is the base version of the M-class range in India. However, it still gets luxury SUV essentials like powered front seats, xenon lights, a sunroof, parking sensors, Bluetooth audio and telephony, and dual-zone climate control. Where the 250 CDI differs from the 350 CDI is in its use of a simpler display for the audio system (theres no COMAND). Theres no seat memory and no electric tailgate operation either.

The X3, in this 3.0d guise, comes with all of the above and also gets a panoramic sunroof and a six-DVD changer with USB and Bluetooth connectivity as standard. It also features an 8.8-inch LCD screen for BMWs menu-based iDrive interface to control different car functions.

The Volvo also gets a similar interface with a seven-inch screen, but its not as intuitive as the BMWs system. You also get a DVD player with USB and iPod connectivity, and active headlights that swivel with the steering angle.

Where the Volvo does go one up on its rivals is in terms of safety equipment. Apart from a full complement of seven airbags, it gets City safety that uses laser technology to detect the XC60s proximity to the vehicle in front and automatically brakes the car (from speeds up to 30kph) if it senses an impending collision. You can also opt for the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) that warns you of vehicles out of your view.

The ML 250 CDI comes with nine airbags and also gets Attention Assist, which uses various parameters to detect if a driver is drowsy and warns them if they are. Standard on the ML 250 CDI is Mercedes Pre-Safe, which primes the safety systems in advance if it detects a possible collision. The system tightens the seat belts and automatically closes all windows for optimal airbag effectiveness.

BMWs X3 gets eight airbags and a long list of electronics to ensure stability and control at all times.

Our verdict

* Mercedes ML 250 CDI

****

The M-class scores high on interior space and has an amazing build quality. Although it is a bit dull to drive, it comes across as a proper, no-compromise Merc at a semi-appealing price.