Its noon and we are chewing up miles at a rapid pace, gaining altitude as we kiss the 9000 feet mark. The display already shows 0 degrees and the roads, errr, white paths we are driving on are filled with snow and hard ice, turning NH-22 into nothing less than a huge ice skating highway. The conventional 5-seater Mercedes ML350 CDI has no less than 8 people on board (don't ask how we managed that) and the brilliant 4MATIC system along with a million other technologies shields us from this 'tough' driving environment. 620Nm of torque does come handy and before we know, we are in Narkanda, surrounding by the magical white Himalayas with the road biased tyres resting in a foot of fresh soft snow.
The Mercedes-Benz M Class is the most successful luxury SUV in India. If you want one, wait for months, stretching to as much as 4-6! It is assembled right here at the Mercedes plant outside Pune and this also means you can have the entry level ML250 for as under Rs 50 lac though if you have deep pockets, the version you see here, the ML350 CDI is the one to go for. The first 100 units imported into India got the AMG treatment with delicious alloys and body kit and as far as we know, this is the first current generation M Class to do a sub-zero Himalayan expedition. With eight people on board. Grin!
Being based out of New Delhi, we consider ourselves lucky. You see, the base of the Himalayas is just a 4 hour drive away and with the last snowfall of this season due on the 15-17th Feb weekend, we thought of making it special. We had also been looking forward to the M for a while now in Delhi and thankfully, the good guys at MB decided to give us a go ahead for this white trip. With Dhalli, just outside Shimla being our base, the first 355km from Delhi were dispatched off with ease in under 8 hours, including breaks.
The NH-1 leading to Ambala has now taken up shape of a good fast 4-lane highway and this is where SUVs like the M can stretch their legs and impress its occupants with pure refinement. Haryana is known for speed patrolling and hence the cruise control was set at 95km/h and finer details of the inside enjoyed. When you spend over 60 lac (ex-showroom) on a vehicle, you look forward to the best of leather and wood. The M justifies its price tag while further delivering attention to detail that simply cannot be found in its rival, especially the BMW X5. The M simply pampers you with high detailing and that luxurious feel. The typical Mercedes gear shift lever on the steering column also frees up space between the front two seats and even with a person like yours truly up in the driver's seat, there is ample space at the rear for 3 well built adults. The updated COMMAND dial looks and works well and its actually easy to play with the system even on the go (for the driver).
The hills on the Shimla route start just before Parwanoo. The new Himalayan Expressway, though short in terms of length, does deserve applause. The 4-lane hill stretch is fab and a driver's delight and though the M's steering feels over-assisted, switching to the 'sports mode' does take care of things to an extent. The last 80 odd km to Shimla are a single lane affair and a quick look at the driver info display revealed a fuel economy of 11.5kmpl till here - this including a couple of 150km/h+ bursts on the empty NH-1. We enthusiasts live for grinning moments and the heavy (2175 kilos) delivers this, thanks to its 255 Bhp engine.
The NH-22 leading to Shimla and beyond is pretty good in terms of tarmac quality apart from a few rough stretches. The Sport mode, inspite of stiffening up the suspension, still absorbs undulations pretty well. The comfort mode though turns the M into nothing less than a comfortable limousine. No really! Past Shimla, Day 1 itself turned out to be lucky for us with the Himalayan Gods showering us with soft flakes as we drove up the steep incline to our secluded hotel in the middle of nowhere. The small town enroute in the meantime had every soul taking note of the big M.
SUVs like the M are seldom subjected to adventurous drives. And this is a pity. This isnt just the case with owners but most of the automotive media that simply takes these SUVs to a highway, shoot a few pictures, drive down a rough patch and voila, their so called review is done. Now that's a shame, especially when SUVs like the M can turn into a serious adventure companion while cocooning its passengers from the harsh environment outside. With Day 2 bringing along more snowfall, we decided to leave behind one of the other two cars that had come along. This also meant space crunch but the big M generously accepted 8 passengers including me, the driver. With two people comfortably sitting in the huge boot with soft pillows for back support, the M started its journey into paradise.
Dhalli is perched at about 7250 feet. Now this in itself is 75% higher than most other hill stations in West and South India, for example, Mahabaleshwar. The initial 10km itself took us to Fagu, at 8000 feet and already, the road we were driving on was all white. The tarmac simply wasn't visible and the tyre kept kissing hard ice and soft snow all the way. The only limitation I could sense were the road biased tyres but again, over 90% owners would never drive the way we did. The 4MATIC, as mentioned above, worked well and the M pulled cleaned up the hills even with the extra load with just the occasional traction control warning light flickering on the display ahead.
Narkanda, 60km from Dhalli and at 9000 feet was our destination. We even drove up the snowed out narrow road to the Government Circuit House to meet friends and later, the M also pulled out our second car on slippery inclines - all this with 8 on board! The confidence levels that the M gives you is tremendous but on tricky roads, inexperienced drivers have to practice caution while braking. As wheels lock, the ABS system keeps lifting off the brake pressure. This along with the weight of the M means that braking distances increases a lot on icy roads. Even at 5km/h, brake hard and the car simply keeps going ahead : the ABS does its duty but in such areas, this safety aid becomes a scary issue : nothing wrong with the vehicle but harsh environs which call for caution and 100% attention all the time.
The drive back to our hotel was non-stop : 60km in 90 mins in sub zero environs does call for appreciation. It should also be noted that so comfortable and refined the M is, both the boot passengers didnt complain of nausea at all, inspite of being belly heavy after our Narkanda lunch break. Kudos!
The drive back to Delhi the next day was uneventful, save for a quick drive with a white British sedan with similar power but less weight. The M flies past the ton in under 8 seconds and kisses the 200 km/h mark pretty quickly for a SUV. The diesel engine is remarkable in its NVH levels and hardly makes itself felt during general driving scenarios.
This 900 drive on the weekend not only revealed the secrets of the M's success, it also shattered the notion that these expensive SUVs have their tails between the legs in extreme driving situations. The M behaves like a big luxury sedan during daily drives and changes its character when asked to. The adjustable air suspension for example lets you go off the road easily while driving aids like DSR (downhill speed regulation) and off-road mode give it an edge in this price band. And then, there are the clean bits to help our environment. The ECO mode for example shuts off the engine at 0km/h, bringing it back to life when the brake level is released. Nine airbags and Attention Assist keep you safe and the big three pointed star on the grille ahead simply takes the cake away.
The likes of the Audi Q7 4.2 might have more power, the Porsche Cayenne better agility and the BMW X5 that driver's edge but as a complete package for a SUV that can play different roles and most importantly, offer you the best luxury for your money, the M Class, especially the ML250CDI, simply walks away with the crown.