Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Old Versus The New. Again.

One of the most recognised Mercedes-Benz products is the G-Wagen, or Geländewagen, for cross-country vehicle. Herculean in its robustness and solidarity, it wears its exposed hinges on its sleeve and has continued in production for civilian use since 1979, with military variants being available before even then. Hardly changed externally in all those years, the Steyr-assembled vehicle has been given another lease of life and construction will continue into its fourth decade.

Thing is, as phenomenal a car as it is (and it really is), it’s just a bit hardcore for many. Like the Land Rover Defender, sturdy and heroic as it is, some people just want a little more luxury. And no matter how soft your leather is or how many buttons there are to press, luxury and brutality are uneasy bedfellows.

The SUV market had absolutely exploded in the late ‘90s, some manufacturers saw it coming and reacted early, others bided their time and struck while the iron was hot. Land Rover’s Discovery was born of frustration, as they sat watching the Japanese conquer the 4x4 market with their Pajeros and Troopers, wishing they had a way of cashing in. The Discovery was a masterpiece in product planning, re-using a lot of technology they already had in the Defender and Range Rover and still forging a new, more accessible, identity while retaining a “premium” image.

By the time Mercedes joined the market in late ’97, the formula was already well proven. Their offering, the ML was a fairly traditional body-on-frame design but with very sophisticated electronic stability systems, the first time they were ever installed on an SUV. Together with a suite of airbags and a raft of different engine choices, the ML was launched worldwide with a fair bit of confidence. With a major appearance in the second Jurassic Park film the car saw international success rapidly, Mercedes intention to create a car that the American market would take to their heart seemed to be coming to fruition.

Then came the bad times. First generation ML’s weren’t exactly built with Swiss watch precision. Panel gaps are generous and paint is often questionable. There are a lot of them out there fraying a bit at the edges. Being the first time MB had dallied in the mainstream SUV market there was no real precedent to conform with, and enthusiasts of the marque complained that the ML didn’t necessarily feel like a proper Mercedes.

What does it feel like, then? Well, It’s still hard to say. A few weeks back I wrote about the R-Class, a car that in my mind feels how a Mercedes should

This weekend I volunteered for the task of collecting one of our senior managers from Gatwick Airport. Snow had been falling countrywide and so I would need something sure-footed and with plenty of space for cargo. For practicality, the E-Class estate would have worked if only it wasn’t so hopeless in the snow, I really needed something four wheel drive. Our R350 was double-booked and the GL450 was off the radar, too. I was stuck with a mission to accomplish but no wheels to do it with.

Then one of our business managers came up with the car you see before you. Two grand’s worth of ’01, first generation ML270, freshly in as a part-exchange. With it wearing 172,000 on the odo, but having half a tank of diesel, I shrugged my shoulders, checked for my breakdown card and saddled up. In the back of my mind I was actually looking forward to picking the guy up in an old beater rather than the usual fifty grand leviathan. Also, I had been driving the current, unibody ML around quite a lot recently, it would be interesting to make comparisons between the two, and hey, it gave me something to write about.

No flavour of ML has ever been my favourite Mercedes. The current car, for all its yummy-Mummy image and poseur kerb appeal just seems a little two-dimensional in character. It drives extremely well, there can be no doubt, but it does nothing much to stir you emotionally. Furthermore, for the space it occupies at the sharp end of MBs current product portfolio, it doesn’t feel terribly special. The interior plastics may be of the finest quality, but there are far too many of them. The age of the platform also dictates that MBs one-size-fits-all Stereo / Sat-nav system is employed in this £50k car as it would a £19k A-Class. Small, almost petty points, I’m sure. But a Range Rover leaves me feeling much less short-changed.

So to the original, W163 ML, then. Although prematurely dated by the existence of its replacement model, it’s still quite a handsome old beast. It appears noticeably bulkier than the current car, its extra height testament to its separate chassis. The extra length also allowed for the optional instalment of two jump-seats in the boot, absent from my test vehicle. No such seven-seat capability is offered in todays car, that role is fulfilled by the considerably more expensive GL-Class.

Hauling myself up to the command position I notice firstly that I sit far higher in this car, and that there is less fore-aft seat adjustment than I thought there might be. I would have to splay my ridiculous legs a little to stay comfy. Starting the machine up, the five-cylinder diesel lump coughs into life and settles into an offbeat thrum. It’s not completely lacking in refinement, its slightly brusque nature is actually quite charming. With the traditional four-speed floorshift auto in D, I set course for the airport.

The interior of this generation of ML struggled slightly for a Mercedes-Benz identity, everything you touched being merely satisfactory, functional. Having said that my surroundings had lasted the nine years very well indeed. Everything seemed to work and the switchgear still felt solid. It’s a more workmanlike environment than on later MLs, the ergonomics and general usability of it are first rate, except for the electric window controls which are ludicrously angled on the centre storage box. Jump into 2010 ML and it immediately looks flashier, but this is all superficial. The older car was perfectly up to task.

To drive, though, the two are worlds apart. That the car rides on a separate chassis is self-evident, the body control is far less disciplined than with unibody machines. As a result, though, the ride is extremely fluid and very quiet. You feel mechanically isolated from all the effort going into propelling you along. It all feels rather old-fashioned, and actually quite pleasant. With only just sufficient power, prodding the ML270 diesel’s loud pedal incites coinsiderable commotion from the other side of the dashboard, but it’s always willing. You do get the sense, thought, that the larger ML320 diesel would get the job done with less fuss and comparable economy.

We made it to Gatwick airport just as the first flakes of a new batch of snow began to fall on Surrey, and coincidentally a new and worrisome noise reared its head, a rattle barely audible unless at tickover, but noisier than a Dalek disco-dancing in a dustbin with the windows down. I traced the noise to a loose exhaust heatshield, annoying but by no means a crisis. With my guests on board, and irritable after their long flight and being collected in such an unseemly conveyance, I began the journey homewards. 

By now the snow was falling with some determination and I have to say that the ML performed superbly. It felt sure-footed, even on patches of tarmac that were more white-powder than blacktop, there was never any feeling of impending doom. A previous owner had fitted far more terrain-capable rubber to the car than was originally supplied, though I wouldn’t know whether this made any difference today.

Everybody had finished whingeing by the time I dropped them off at their respective destinations, the old girl had done us proud. I spent another fifty miles with the ML, home and then back to work the next day. How best to conclude? With the current ML having been on the market for five years, just how visibly has progress been made between the two?

Well, the new car is all-round a better machine, fact. Quality is higher, off-road capability (especially if you option the available off-road package) has been improved, and reliability is up if customer feedback is anything to go by. The W163 was the first car to be built by Mercedes in America, and it seems that it took a long while for Tuscaloosa build quality to match European output, but later efforts have been much better. However, none of this changes my mind from concluding thus:

I prefer the old one. If value and cost were taken out of the equation, if both vehicles were being built and could be bought today, I would still prefer the W163 over the W164, and it’s all down to how it makes me feel.

We live in a time where cars are becoming increasingly homogenised. Vehicular concepts are becoming watered down for the greater good and no matter how refined and capable the W164 feels, it still feels like “just a car”. Surely the ML should feel like more than that? A car with off-road capabilities is a specialist piece of machinery, and should make a virtue of that. The W163 does, if only because the technology is older and harder to polish. It displays more rawness, which is no doubt exactly what Mercedes were trying to avoid. It’s a flaw, a shortcoming that serves to make the old ML far more charming than the new, and it is the only area where the old beats the new. A small point, then, but significant enough for me to declare it a decisive victory.