The third-generation Mercedes M-Class has arrived in SA with a more assertive look and a range of efficient new engines. We drove them in Gauteng and Limpopo but we’re already looking forward to the monster AMG’s arrival. So there we were, sitting under the twinkling Limpopo sky listening to Selvin Govender, Merc SA’s divisional manager of marketing for cars, wax lyrical about some features of the new M, when a twinkle of a different kind caught my eye. Using only glowing LED parking lights to light the way, a twin pair of 368kW ML 63 AMGs ambled on to the stage – and anything Govender said beyond that point was lost. ML 63 AMG image galleryThe monster had arrived but all anyone wanted to do was touch its Diamond White body and make it “say aaah” by popping the bonnet. But no driving though, the disappointed gathering of petrol heads was told. It’ll only be here in July…The main reason for our trek to Limpopo was, after all, to experience what Merc had developed for the rest of the M range. FOUR STRONGThe M-Class has been a fixture in the Mercedes line-up since 1999. Now in its third generation, the range available at launch in South Africa starts with the hot-shot new four-cylinder diesel ML 250 BlueTec, twin diesel and petrol six-cylinders in the ML 350 and ML 350 BlueTec and the V8 ML 500 although the last-mentioned couldn’t be sourced in time for the media launch.Either way, the models available to drive did a good job of showing off the re-designed SUV’s look that has been angled to a sportier, more assertive, design. M-Class image galleryThe M-Class is noticeably bigger than the model it replaces and is 15mm wider (particularly evident at the rear where the wider tail lights make the 4x4 appear more squat) and is 23mm longer but has a roof line 19mm lower to add to the M-Class’s more bolder appearance and improve its aerodynamics. Emphasising the M-Class’s redesign are striking new headlights, a new bumper design with chromed inserts, a higher shoulder line to create a cocooning feeling for occupants, a roof that slopes to the rear for a more coupe-like appearance (particularly with the windows in the C pillar) and a larger tail door to the bigger load area.Critically, the entire range of the full-sized SUV has engines that are more fuel-efficient and emit fewer CO2 emissions than those they replace. In that regard, the new ML 250 BlueTec turbodiesel is Merc’s star performer: it consumes 6.5 litres/100km (the automaker said it can cover up to 1500km on a tank) and emits a staggeringly low 165g/km of CO2/km. CONSIDERING THE BUDGETJournalists present at the launch were not required to match and verify the fuel-consumption claims although the route that took us from the Emperor’s Palace to the east of Johannesburg to the Legends Golf and Safari resort in the Waterberg region just outside Mookgopong (the former Naboomspruit) in Limpopo and back did give us a chance interact more closely with the vehicle. I didn't have a chance to drive the ML 250 CDI, given that it is the entry-point to the new M-Class range, but my driving partner was duly impressed by its willingness (aided, no doubt, by its useful 500Nm of torque). I did, however, get to drive the twin six-cylinders where the turbodiesel, which has been significantly overhauled and produces 190kW and 620Nm, seemed the most impressive at handling the inertia brought on by the 2175kg kerb weight. The petrol V6 with BlueEfficiency technology develops 225kW and 370Nm and, Merc said, returns a fuel consumption figure, in the combined cycle of 8.8 litres/100km.The automaker’s 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed autoc transmission with an Eco start/stop function is standard across the range and all the diesel engines in the line-up require the AdBlue additive that cleans the exhaust gases emitted by splitting the nitrogen oxide produced into nitrogen and water vapour. All the cars driven (including the diesels) impressed with their incredibly quiet cabins and their high comfort levels thanks, in part, to this ML’s stiffer body. The overall ride quality on the mix of tar, gravel and light off-road tracks the ML was subjected to was more than adequate, with displays of great balance and poise on some of the faster, twistier sections.MIX AND MATCHA steel suspension using a double wishbone arrangement on the front axle and a multi-link rear is standard on most models although this, barring the entry-level 250, can be upgraded to the Airmatic air suspension system. Merc’s 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive is standard across all the models although an On & Offroad package with six pre-determined settings can be optioned for M's fitted with Airmatic. As expected, the list of standard and optional features is exhaustive and, again, depending on model, range from a selection of wood and leather finishes to an Active Curve system that regulates the ML’s dampers through twisting roads and contributes to greater straight-line stability. Comand Online combines the regular Comand system with in-cabin internet services and a number of packages. Packages include the On & Offroad pack (R23 000), Lane Tracking pack (R10 800), Driving Assistance pack (R26 000) and the popular AMG Sports pack (R28 300). Mercedes-Benz is particularly proud that its fans can now purchase an M-Class for less than R700 000 (the previous entry-level 170kW 350 CDI started at R727 840) and the new four-cylinder 250 BlueTec definitely makes a case for itself with its honest performance and comfort, but if you’re not too fussy about a badge perhaps the Porsche Cayenne (starting at R676 000) and the M’s BMW arch-rival, the X5 SAV (starting at R690 000) would also be well worth considering.