Thanks for the congrats at the end of the other comparo thread - I figured I'd tack it on here since after side-by-side test driving of the new ML320, I decided to go with it instead of the MDX, so I might as well post my findings.
Worm - I didn't get the vehicle yet, so as to my hitting 300 before I snuck out - if I sit up all night, I might just make it
(kidding - I have a couple of months until my car actually gets here - I'm a sucker for a wait).
Performance & Handling:
The MDX beats out the ML320, although not as badly as you'd think when comparing the 240 HP of the MDX versus the 215 of the 320. Engine sound was quieter on the MDX.
Both are 5 speed, capable, smooth transmissions. The ML's full time 4WD makes it more off-road ready, and can tow up to 5k pounds (this was a consideration for me - towing my boat, which is right at the MDX's capacity, was a concern).
The ML320 here wins with a full time 4WD system, and the ability to do clutchless-manual shifting.
I felt the ML320's steering was more responsive than the MDX, and a tighter turning radius on the ML320 was also noticable (although, I was surprised to see it was only 37 vs. 38 ft - I really thought it would be much different).
Sacrifice - that's what design is all about. Sacrifice the chassis design, to make it more car-like, and you end up with a car pretending to be an SUV. Take the SUV, and you end up with a bumpier ride. Plain and simple. The ML320 loses to the MDX in terms of ride, by a longshot.
Ultimately, where the MDX lost. I've been driving an SUV since before they became stylish. One thing I've always been aware of - the propensity for the rear end to swing out during emergency maneuvers. I tested both these vehicles in emergency-like maneuvers (and was scolded in both cases by the salesmen). The safety features and sturdier construction of the ML320, with active brake assist, side curtain airbags, stability control, etc. - just made it too hard to pass up.
Not that the MDX isn't a safe vehicle - I'm sure it will do just fine when it's crash tested. But my main priority was safety, and I couldn't resist that here, for the good of my family.
Not even close - the ML320's revamped interior is another one of my major deciding factors against the MDX. I liked the leather all around and the solid feel to the controls. The third row seating option (which I purchased) seemed to be a bit more useful, since everyone else in the vehicle can essentially move forward to give the third row some breathing room (although I'm still not thrilled with the hokey fold-and-lift method of putting away the seats).
I was previously not impressed by the ML320 because of a few seriously lacking items - like automatic climate control. 2002 brings you that feature.
The problem I have with Acura is it's Honda lineage. I kept thinking 'this is an Accord' when I was driving in the MDX. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing - but if you're going to hit me for $40k, please upgrade some of the controls over the Civic.
Cargo space - MDX wins here, but not by as much as you'd think. Also - the extra 6 inches of vehicle length and 4 inches of width made the MDX a tough consideration for my unusually short garage (188" whereas my garage's length is 192").
Neither of these cars will be winning awards for high-styling. Not that I don't like both of their appearances, although the style changes to the 2002 ML320 could have gone even further than they did. I give the MDX a nod here, but the ML is not far behind.
Both vehicles had excellent fit and finish. Clearances and body gaps were great. 2k2 ML320 comes with 17" tires standard, and thanks to MB for finally getting rid of those ridiculous General tires.
Equipment and Value:
Here's where I shock the world - everyone is of the impression that a fully loaded MDX @ $40k is a great value. I've got news - none of these vehicles is an impressive value at that cost. Not the MDX, ML320, RX300 - none of them.
At $40k, the MDX sports quite a few gadgets - including navigation. I couldn't manage navigation @ $40k for the ML320 - but at that price, I did manage to get Xenon HIDs and the Bose system, which with 9 speakers throughout the cabin, performed very well (for a Bose). I don't know if Acura toyed with it's stock system - but they should. The quality was sub-standard, even for Bose.
I rate this one a tie - since Acura decided not to throw in side curtain airbags and stability control, both which are standard in the ML320 - hard to compare apples vs. apples, but I don't think either of these vehicles stands out as a great bargain.
Where do you go with this one? The ML had two years of questionable reliability, plus one year of average reliability. The Acura - should be solid, but it's in it's first MY. Will the VTM-4 system be a typical Honda product, or will there be issues down the line? This one was a wash for me - I was convinced that the first two MY's of the ML320 were growing pains, for a company recently merged and opening a new plant for a new design.
Both of these vehicles are warranteed for 4 years. ML320 includes maintenance over 4 years. MDX was missing as options - HIDs, VSA, side curtain airbags. ML320 was not missing any options available on the MDX. Negotiating prices - MDX still in high demand - ML320, can get a deal for $500 to $1000 over invoice. Snob factor - meaningless to me, but must count to someone - a MB is an MB.
Price as tested -
$42,500 for the ML320 - fully configured, no navigation.
$37,450 for the MDX - no navigation.
I consider the price difference to be about $2k (factor in the fact that VSA is unavailable - but would be a ~$600 option, HIDs unavailable ~$800, side curtain airbags ~$500, 4 years no-maint).
My final thoughts:
My primary concern was safety, thus the MB won. If I cared only about the ride and handling, the MDX would have won. If I cared a lot about the luxury of the vehicle, the MB would have taken the top position.
This was a tough call - because MB managed to considerably improve this vehicle, and it was pretty good to begin with. Ultimately, neither of these two vehicles would be the wrong call.
In my grand SUV comparo, here is the summary:
1. Mercedes ML320 - good overall, safest of the bunch.
2. Acura MDX - comfortable vehicle, excellent ergonomics.
3. Ford Explorer - not a bad redesign - but questionable safety and reliability.
4. Lexus RX300 - too small to be a factor in my comparo.
5. BMW X5 - see #4.