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Quality off-roader is a real Merc of art.

ALTHOUGH I was named after a family friend called Bernhard, I have had little to do with Germans over the years.

Apart from, that is, when sunning myself on the beaches of Europe.

And I am usually left with the same quandary: how do people with haircuts as preposterous as Michael Bolton's make such incredible cars?

Now I am probably being a little unfair. After all, your average lobster-coloured Brit abroad is nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I didn't have to bother myself with an answer to my German-car-hair dilemma when weighing up the undoubted qualities of the superb Mercedes M-class.

This is a fantastic vehicle and every inch a German car in its refinement and performance but it is built at a production plant in America (close to Birmingham, Alabama, to be precise).

The M-class is the first Mercedes to be made outside Europe in the company's 100-year history.

And the reason they decided to build it in the States is that they thought it would sell in droves over there.

Needless to say, they were right and, since it was introduced to the UK market last year, demand for the M-class has been the same.

Unfortunately, I didn't have an opportunity to take my test-car over an off-road circuit but, to be honest, only the most expert drivers could truly assess its capabilities away from Tarmac.

And, in any case, research suggests only 10 per cent of 4x4 owners ever venture out into the unknown.

So, what I can tell the remaining nine out of 10 of you is that the M-class is a mouth-wateringly good drive on conventional roads.

Mercedes maintains this is as car-like as it is possible for a two-ton off-roader to be - and it would be difficult to argue with that.

The 3.2-litre engine is impressively quick and quiet delivering its 218bhp effortlessly through a smooth five-speed automatic gearbox (there is no manual option available).

The feel of a true Mercedes is everywhere from the silky power-steering to the firm but soft brakes.

You can loll back in the deep and comfortable seats while cooling yourself with air conditioning straight from a swanky New York office block.

There is plenty of space for German-size drivers and passengers both front and back, together with ample room in a boot which can, optionally, take a third row of seats.

But what I really liked about the M-class - and what I like about most Mercedes - is how understated the interior is.

Although there are twice as many innovations compared with some rivals, there appear to be only half as many buttons, dials and switches.

And, as most are set into deep and dark wooden trims, the overall impression is one of technology with taste. The same can be said about the exterior. It is muscular and robust yet somehow sleek. There is nothing agricultural about the M-class design.

Whichever way you look at it, Mercedes's first serious foray into the ever-growing 4x4 market has been a success.

It's Mmmm and it's class.

Are you a Mercedes driver - what makes their cars special for you? Write to Talk About, Sunday Mercury, 28 Colmore Circus, Birmingham B4 6AZ.

Mercedes ML 320

How much: pounds 31,780 on the road

How quick: 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds. Top speed 112mph

How thirsty: 21.7mph

Engine: 3,199cc, V6, 24-valve producing 218bhp

Insurance: Group 16

I like: The all-round quality and refinement

I don't like: That I didn't have the chance to drive it off-road
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Author:Cole, Bernard
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jul 18, 1999
Words:586
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