23 OCTOBER 1999, Page 69

Not motoring

Mercedes manners

Alan Judd

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to be invited by Mercedes for a day of off- roading in their new M-Class, their entry into the four-wheel-drive fashion (as opposed to utility/G Wagon) sector. Last month's article speculated on the reasons for the continued flourishing of this sector, which will now be yet further enhanced as life-long Mercedes owners are tempted into it by the knowledge that they can do so in the capable hands of their familiar friend. Even BMW and Porsche enthusi- asts will soon be able to do the same.

And capable those Mercedes hands are, and tempted those Mercedes drivers shall be. With its sophisticated array of electronic traction systems and stability programmes, the M-class coped impressively with the worst that Sussex weather and conditions could throw at it — steady rain, hidden tree stumps, lurching angles, alarming hills and then lakes, fens, bogs, dens and shades of death amidst heavy, glutinous, sucking, devouring Sussex clay. It was initially reported of this car that it could not really do the business off-road, but that was prob- ably because someone forgot to switch off the ESP (electronic stability programme) when engaging low range. If you don't as I discovered in one particularly tree-rid- den hill-bog — you soon start to lose it, but so long as you do the car will do everything that all but specialist off-road drivers are likely to ask. If it has a fault in this area, it is that it is all too easy to forget to switch off the ESP. Why not link it to the low- range switch, so that one goes off as the other comes on? After all, the benefits of ESP are mainly concerned with normal on- the-road driving.

Back on the road, meanwhile, the M- Class has all the manners we normally associate with Mercedes, plus — in the 430 version I had for a week — all the power and performance you are likely to want. It is, as the PR people claimed, car-like in its handling, with no top-heavy patch and roll, no cart-spring suspension, easy to drive and at the same time engaging. The seats are excellent and the whole thing feels superbly engineered. If I say that women will like it I shall be suspected of some sort of put- down, either of the car or womankind or both, but what I mean is that it has some- thing slightly feminine about it that never- theless does not compromise its impression of weight and solidity. Perhaps it's the rounded, streamlined tear-drop shape and its responsive road manners. At £43,000 this top-range model will compete seriously with Range Rover, while the £28,000 com- mon-rail diesel, which they're introducing here next year, will make the excellent new Discovery work for its place.

Since May M-Classes for the European market have been built in Austria but those before were built in America and there were worries about early build quality. The one I tested had no skeletons in its glove- compartment (though there was, ominous- ly, a bit of someone's socket set) but the • doors didn't shut with the satisfying clunk you expect from Mercedes and the driver's cup-holder kept appearing when it shouldn't, as if mocking my longing for tea. The gear-shift seemed unsuited for right- hand drive, in that the markings are on the left and partly obscured, but the five-speed box itself is a subtle delight. If you're pro- tective of your tights or trousers you'd bet- ter ensure you step right out without rub- bing your calf down the sill, since the distance from seat to outer edge is consid- erable. In certain lights the curved lines of the dash are reflected distractingly in the windscreen, while visibility — especially rearwards — is not as good as in most four- wheel drives. In fact, the rear top portion, a glass bauble following broad rear panels, is slightly reminiscent of the unfortunate detachable rear end of the three-door Freelanders. Some mistake here, surely.

But there are no mistakes about the way this car wafts you through hell and high water, or air-brushes you along the tarmac. It is safe, quiet, powerful and capable. It has status and will be successful. But it won't, I think, be mine. If I were spending £28,000 I'd look first at the Discovery, where the Conran-based interior design is a spatial delight. And if I were spending £43,000 I'd consider the mighty Toyota Landcruiser Amazon, king of the jungle. See next month's column for whether that has the edge.