M Class better in the Highlands

Big 4x4s may have the nickname Chelsea tractors, but are better out in the countryside… where they belong.

He didn’t want to go to Chelsea, but Frederic Manby found something comfortable to be in.

CHELSEA was recently announced as the epicentre of 4×4 saturation in Britain. Close behind was neighbouring Kensington, followed by a couple of locations in Aberdeenshire, Banchory and Turriff.
At least there is proper work for a 4×4 in the Scottish glens. In Chelsea, well, there isn’t much to do with the 4×4 bit. It is the bulk that buyers want, what the designers call the high-command driving position.
The capital is awash with models like Q7, XC90, Range Rover Sport, Sorento for the home help, the M Class, X5, anything glossy and looming over other cars.
Quite fitting, then, that I was in a Mercedes-Benz M Class, one of what felt like several thousand vehicles trundling through Chelsea. I could have made more progress with an airport trolley.
It was a mistake.I was headed for south of the river but idly let the navigation device take me from the slow but regular flow on the North Circular and on to the A4 towards the West end. The game was up. The dual carriageway inched me towards one clogged junction after another – the kind where hardly anyone gets through on green and an impatient follow-on closes the road for the next phase.
Believe me, I did not do this once. It would be my luck to be on a camera junction. Ahead of me was a stately silver Rolls-Royce, pootling in the same direction at every turn, as if leading me home. We parted company at Clapham Common.
The Mercedes, made since 1998 in Alabama, was the ideal sort of car for the caper.
Well, the ideal size of car, but the powerful diesel engine was at its dirtiest, on low mpg and high CO2.
All these robust all-roaders have a seven speed automatic gearbox, with the selection of reverse, drive or park made using a neat stalk behind the steering wheel at ten past.
There’s not much to dislike about this roomy five-seater. The rear seats fold away, naturally. To get a flat floor you must pull up the base and fold against the front seats – and these must be far enough forward to allow the backrests to lie flat. These are substantial seats but the movements are light enough for weak muscles.
There are three engine options in Britain, plus the option of air suspension and low ratio gears for difficult terrain.
The diesel motors are 3-litre V6 – the 201bhp ML300 CDI, from £41,210, and the 228bhp ML350 from £43,260, giving pokey acceleration. The 0-62 mph times are 8.3 seconds and 7.6 seconds respectively and both return a combined fuel economy of 32.5 mpg. The only time I saw this figure was on the motorway in the ML350 test car. Usually it was averaging 25 to 28mpg, not bad for a hunk. Co2 is 240g/km.
The only petrol engine is the 383bhp 5.5 litre V8 ML500,from £55,110, giving 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds and 21.6mpg combined.Air suspension is standard on this model, with self-levelling and three ride heights. It is automatically lowered at high speeds to reduce drag and fuel consumption. In addition, ground clearance can be manually increased on rough off-road terrain.
Like Land Rovers, all MClass have a push-button off-road selector. This manages traction and stability systems and anti-slip for loose surfaces. The option of low range gears, centre and rear differential locks and extended ground clearance are more Aberdeenshire than Chelsea.
My ML350 test car was in the highest Grand edition specification, which brought the price to £50,710. It was on 20-inch wheels with 265/40 tyres, fine on fine roads, rather unforgiving on rippled and grotty surfaces.
Notable kit included a power tailgate, leather with contrast stitching, and privacy glass, which hampers rear vision for parking after dark.
I did not realise how large this car was until I was down below one in my Polo. Truly humbling.
The test car was brand new and fuel economy should improve with higher mileage. The refinement places it above the cheaper Asian challengers, but you pay for this privilege. It looks and feels solid. Compared with the smaller Range Rover Sport (from £47,995) the price looks a bargain. It is actually the same length (196 inches) as a Range Rover (from £68,945).