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Advice needed! ML320 v. MDX

4628 Views 33 Replies 16 Participants Last post by  MDXLuvr
I'm looking to replace a '99 Jeep GC. I've boiled my choices down to the ML320 ('01 or '02 model) or the MDX. I've read a bunch of the threads on the topic, but none of the posts seem to address my concerns directly -- I'm hoping someone here can help. Some questions:

- handling on ice and snow is very important to me. Thoughts on comparisons of the 4WD systems?

- I tested the '01 MDX and couldn't find a comfortable place for my left foot. have they fixed that yet? I imagined my foot getting very tired on a 4+ hour ride to Tahoe...

- Also, the wind noise in the MDX was disturbing. Fixed in '02?

- how is the quality? I think highly of Acura -- is the MDX up to their standards?

- be honest: how does this handle in the snow?

- handling on the ML seemed a little better. I'm aware of the quality issues in the ML, but what do people think from a pure driver's standpoint?

Anything else people think I should know?

Many thanks in advance for any advice....
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It may not matter to you, but I found the front passenger seat to be much more comfortable in the MDX than in the ML. The lumbar support (base model) is far better than the ML's.
yoitsme said:
...I've boiled my choices down to the ML320 ('01 or '02 model) or the MDX....
See the detailed thread on this topic at

Good luck to your search...

Every vehicle decision comes down to your priorities. You're not going to get 100% neutral nor 100% accurate opinions here or on (though you should definitely post there, as I believe you've had). So take any opinion you hear with a grain of salt. Decide if it's important to you or not, and how it affects your priorities.

Thus, I'm only going to assume from your post two definite priorities, rather than throw myriad statements that may or may not be relevant. You've seen the posts here and there's not much more to be said in many areas. There are certainly many more pluses to both vehicles that I won't even mention in this post. There are also negatives, but c'mon, it's holiday time, people are dying around the world, and getting into another p***ing match isn't what we want to do.

Winter handling seems to be a priority for you. Personally, I think the ML320 has the technical edge here because of its more sophisticated drivetrain (e.g. stability control plus the fact that all four wheels are always going). But there are no absolutes and it won't handle every situation (e.g. if you simply don't have enough traction). The MDX has proved itself fine for most folks here in severe winter conditions (e.g. some posters here from places like Minnesota). I wouldn't try anything really extreme but you should not do this with any vehicle. I still think the ML320 will handle a number of more extreme situations the MDX will not, however.

I assume quality is another priority for you. The ML320 is in its fifth model year and quality is probably about average now or even above average, so that should be enough for many people (and definitely no worse than the overall line of Grand Cherokees!).

The MDX's first year is not as good as other Acuras because it's a new model and its Odyssey underpinnings weren't perfect either. Well-known first year issues are The Thud and weeping mirrors, both of which are supposedly fixed by TSB's and in the second model year.

Nevertheless, according to JD Power, the first model year of the MDX is actually higher quality than the fourth model year of the ML320. You have to take JD Power with a grain of salt though; they're not as good as Consumer Reports, but CR hasn't had enough time yet (so far as I know) to compile enough history on the MDX or on more recent ML320's. But the score is surprising nonetheless.

Finally, I noticed that someone told you that the MDX did well in the IIHS 40mph offset crash test but had more footwell intrusion than the ML320. And suggested that a higher-than-40mph crash could result in a higher foot injury. I agree with the concept that a higher speed crash could result in possibly higher foot injury than in an ML320; though the fact is that the MDX performance is still "good." However, there was a significant omission in the post that made it (potentially dangerously) one-sided -- the MDX had a better 40mph head/neck injury score ("good") than the ML320 tested ("average").

Thus, if the logic of the opinion is to be followed, that a more severe impact than the 40mph collision might result in more footwell injury to the MDX driver, then it could also be taken that a more severe impact is going to result in significantly more head/neck injury in the ML320. That's what the post to you conveniently omitted. But I would caution against drawing either conclusion without scientific testing, it's not an automatic either way!

The '99 M-class IIHS tested has had safety upgrades over the last few years, but there is no conclusive proof that the head/neck injury score has really improved. I would think that MB, which prides itself on its extreme focus on safety and its huge budget on improving safety, would ask the IIHS for another expensive test if they thought it was improved.

That all said, I think both are fine in an offset collision, especially when you compare it to all the other vehicles out there. And indeed, I think that for other types of collisions, the ML320 does have a safety edge.

Good luck with your research, and please let us know if you have other, ranked priorities in a purchase. Again, both are terrific vehicles. I myself bought a 2001 MDX over a 2000 ML320 (2001 not significantly improved, and we couldn't wait for a 2002 ML320 since its features were unannounced and we were having a baby), though if I were to be comparing a 2002 MDX vs. a 2002 ML320, I think it'd be a much, much harder decision and I might indeed go for the ML320 (nice improvements in the 2002 but some negatives -- but NEITHER vehicle is perfect).
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yoitsme said:
- handling on ice and snow is very important to me. Thoughts on comparisons of the 4WD systems?

If handling on ice and snow IS very important to you, then please look into replacing the stock tires with proper Winter tires. I believe that you will find the dynamic handling, skidpad and acceleration differences between the MDX and the ML 4WD systems on ice and snow to pale in comparison to the differences between their stock tires and winter tires.

They may both be fine 4WD systems, but to pick the one that might have a slight technical advantage while ignoring the ultimate arbiter of safe winter handling (tire grip) is IMHO losing the forest for the trees.

Good Luck in your decision.

Car And Driver

Motor Trend

TireRack FAQ

TireRack "Not Enough"
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All -

Many thanks for the helpful input. I noticed that no one else seems to comment on the left footrest issue. has this been fixed in the MDX, or am I the only one bothered by this? I recognize that this may seem like a small problem, but doesn't it bother folks on anything other than a commute-length drive?

I assume/hope that Acura knows how to deal with the weeping mirrors and the Thud problems by now.
MDX defeats winter

In your searches on this topic you may have encountered the
following opinion as written by a correspondent for USA Today.
Personally, I loved his comments about the "ML320 and BMW X5
falling on their faces in the slick stuff" and the MDX didn't fall
into the "whimpering, thumb-sucking standstill of it's German
rivals" on snow covered roads in the Rocky Mountains.

A number of folks on this forum give little credence to reports
by newspaper/magazine "car experts" but it is for you to decide
what their opinion is worth. I also found the real life stories of
forum contributors Road Runner and Dan Call to be very compelling on the issue of how well the MDX performs in winter
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since wmquan answered majority of the questions, i will just add a couple of comments. the '02 MDX does not have a foot rest, and yes, the lack of proper dead pedal does start bothering me after a 3+ hr ride. however, when i drive less than 2.5 hrs, i am ok.

the '02 MDX does have a quieter ride, Acura placed the roof rack a little farther back, changed the design of the side view mirrors and the windshield which has helped some. but, remember, the MDX is bigger, wider, taller? than the ML and therefore, will probably continue to have more windnoise-IMHO.

regarding quality, i had a couple of first year quality issues(a couple of my radio station buttons quit working, my passenger srs light was on at all times, and i have a squeak/rattle from the rear passenger side). these are minor things that were corrected in one visit and not something that would have deterred me from buying the MDX. hopefully, you won't have these things to worry about in a '02 MY.

regarding winter handling, since i live in tx i can't help u with that one.

if you are looking for further difference between '01 and '02 MDX check out BellTeck's comparison

good luck and let us know what you decided upon and why.
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That is a great article Bill, thanks :) I can't believe I haven't ever seen it before. I will definitely add it to the GO CR-V/MDX
Club's library :p My favorite quote from it was:

"MDX could be slung around snowy corners with nary a shiver or slither. It could be accelerated viciously on slush without falling into the whimpering, thumb-sucking standstill of its German rivals. The only vehicle on hand that could remotely match MDX on the snow and ice was Ford Explorer with Control Trac, a more traditional type of four-wheel drive. But Explorer rode stiffly and bounced violently when driven at MDX speeds."

As for handling on ice and snow, I have not yet had the pleasure of driving my 'X in such conditions. However, I would tend to believe the opinions of impartial, professinal Canadian automotive reviewers on such matters, as presumably this is their area of expertise :p Here's what one of them had to say:

"I had a chance to drive the MDX in the snow, and was pleasantly surprised with the seamless operation of the VTM four-wheel-drive system - there is no jerkiness as it transfers torque to the rear wheels. It offered superb traction in snowy and icy conditions. I was also impressed at its P235/65R-17 inch Michelin Frost Terrain snow tires which provided excellent traction and grip. To get out of a snowbank, the driver can manually engage the 45/55 front/rear torque split 4WD system by pressing a button on the dash."

Here's a link to the whole article:

( )
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Donsev and GatorGreg are right. The quality of tires go a LONG way towards winter handling. Please recall the thread here about how 2WD vehicles with winter tires can outperform 4WD vehicles under many (most?) circumstances. Chains/studs can help even more. Adding winter tires to an AWD vehicle or a 4WD vehicle does even better. The 4WD vehicle will still handle somewhat more situations but the AWD with winter tires will probably handle the ones one is likely to get into.

As far as the Healey article goes, there had been extensive discussion on it on Edmunds' M-class and MDX forums when it came out. There are two more extreme ways to look at it, and the answer is probably in between. I'll try to recall them correctly, and let you decide. Caveat here: while I'll try to present both sides, I am not saying I am not biased. I feel that there is absolutely no one -- owner, journalist, shopper, etc. who can be unbiased, blah, blah, blah. Again, make your own decision.

Anti-Healey-article viewpoints:

They maintain that no other journalist has noted the same thing, and Healey is just biased against stability control systems. The basic idea behind stability control is that the system first attempts to brake individual wheels to stop skids and thus lets the proper wheels get power to pull the vehicle out of a sticky situation. Stability control does this by taking inputs from the steering wheel, throttle, yaw angle of the vehicle, ABS, etc. Traction control and power reduction are components of stability control. At a certain point, if the vehicle still isn't getting along and is headed for a dangerous condition, power begins to get cut off.

Some theorize that Healey got himself into a situation that was too extreme and got scared, and the vehicle rightly cut power to keep him from getting into trouble, thus "saving his life," as I remember one poster putting it. The fact that he got through with the MDX was more luck. If one finds themselves dangerously skidding on ice with little or no traction on all four tires, one doesn't want the vehicle to power itself into an even worse situation.

The original '98 ML320 didn't have stability control but it was an excellent snowmobile. Adding ESP -- MB's version of stability control -- which it invented -- was only icing on the cake.

Because the MDX has no stability control system, it has no way of stopping some skids. The torque transfer of VTM-4 helps, but not if the vehicle is slowing down or braking as one may do when they hit a really bad patch (since there is little or no torque to transfer at that point). The Honda CR-V in Japan has/had Acura's version of stability control, and so does the TL-S, so Acura isn't anti-stability control.

Such folks note the Motor Week review where the MDX's tail steps out during the slalom, and how that can be much worse with bad traction. They also note the Consumer Reports review which said the MDX fishtailed during the emergency handling test, and how stability control can correct that. Even Car & Driver's sport-ute comparo, which the MDX won handily, had the MDX at a slower emergency handling speed than the 2000 ML320, despite the MDX being a faster accelerating vehicle.

They also note that you can turn off stability control (ESP) on the ML320, though you don't fully turn off the power reduction, if I recall correctly. E.g. some M-class owners turn it off to "have fun" turning doughnuts in snow-covered parking lots. Some M-class owners say that the stability control system in the M-class is tuned ideally and the BMW's (or Toyota/Lexus or Subaru) are not as aggressive and thus not as safe.

They'll point to posts where a foolish, overaggressive turn on a slick surface didn't result in disaster because the system intervened, and, if necessary, cut power.

These folks also note that 1) Healey may not have actually drove the vehicles as extensively as the article implies; 2) the test was an Acura-sponsored test; and 3) the MDX was a pre-production unit.

Pro-Healey viewpoints:

They'll say the ML320's system power cut-off is far too aggressive. It's designed to coddle inexperienced winter drivers, so it cuts out long before the capabilities of the vehicle are exceeded, interfering with skilled driving.

The insults of Healey "fancying himself a rally car driver" as one poster had put it, are simply defensive reactions and he's quite experienced at what he does -- see how prolific he is. And while there weren't other journalists noting the exact same thing, other articles did note that the MDX did either very well or outperformed its competition at the Colorado test. Thus Healey is quite credible.

Or, worse yet, the ML320's capabilities without ESP are more limited than the wider-track, better-standard-tired MDX (at least at the time of the article when the ML320 came with those off-road compromised tires). The ML320 needs the system to intervene heavily while the MDX simply handled the more extreme condition without any incident, at the same day, the same conditions, Acura-sponsored test or not. Thus VSA is either not needed, or simply not needed until more significantly extreme conditions hit. They think there's a overreliance on overhyped gadgetry.

The bottom line is that the MDX got through the same situation, safely, without having to cut power.

They also maintain that the fact that the vehicle was pre-production is irrelevant, because it was a late unit that was accurately reflective of the final model. Many manufacturers show pre-production units in such pre-intro tests, and autojournalists would speak up if it was significantly different than the final model.

Healey notes in another article (e.g. his review of the Subaru Outback H6 VDC) that the Outback's stability control system is almost the ideal blend of go/no-go. It lets the vehicle's capabilities get itself out of a sticky situation before it begins cutting power, again stating that he thinks the ML320 (and the X5) shuts it off too quickly.

These folks say that for experienced drivers, the ML320 thus stops the fun in the snow when one's driving capabilities can handle it. Turning off ESP doesn't remove the interfererence all the way.

Some are just spooked at the whole idea of cutting power, afraid they'll get into worse trouble because of vehicles around them. E.g. they'll want to get out of the way of another skidding vehicle before they get creamed. They'll note Edmunds M-class forum posts like the one where a driver tried performing a sudden turn on a slick surface and ended up literally stopping right in or just beyond the turn lane.

Finally, they'll say that if/when Acura does add VSA, it'll be more tuned toward driving fun, like it currently is in the TL-S. It won't coddle folks and let the vehicle's inherent design do its job.


Anyway, I'll tack on more if I remember it. Up to you to decide. For what it's worth, and not surprisingly, I think the real answer is somewhere in between.
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wmquan said:

Anti-Healey-article viewpoints:

They maintain that no other journalist has noted the same thing, and Healey is just biased against stability control systems. /B]

Thanks for the info William. You raised a number of issues, but I just wanted to comment on the "no other journalist has noted the same thing" excuse proffered by some. Here's a quote from Edmunds raising similar concerns about the 2000 ML430, from an article in which the M Class got 2nd place overall. Thus an argument that Healey is biased doesn't hold much water with me.

"Sarcastic, backhanded commentary aside, the ML is a great truck for people who don't really want a truck, but want others to perceive the image associated with a truck that wears its three-pointed star like a badge of honor. That's why Carolyn Burnham, the coming-unglued working wife in American Beauty, drove one, isn't it? Four primary complaints surfaced during our testing, one of which has nothing to do with the majority of consumers who buy luxo-utes: lousy off-road capability, poor cabin construction, lame-duck styling and wonky ergonomics associated with the navigation and audio system.

Off-road, the ML is seriously deficient when it comes to arduous trail busting. Despite the existence of full-time four-wheel drive with a dual-range transfer case, four-wheel traction control and Electronic Stability Program (ESP), the Benz struggled to pass our rigorous hill-climb test. A lack of wheel articulation was a primary contributor to the ML's dismal performance, but an extremely intrusive traction control system retarded forward progress to the point that, in several instances, we were nearly stopped halfway up a steep grade. Designed to transfer power from wheels that don't have grip to wheels that do, the traction assist system was constantly cycling power on the bumpier sections of the climb as various tires lost their grasp of terra firma. Those tires - pavement-biased, 55-series 17-inchers - slipped and slid quite a bit in the soft dirt.

ESP works off-road by essentially tossing out an anchor, resulting in jerky, uncontrolled movements. On downhill grades it lulls you into thinking it will work to slow the vehicle every time, like the excellent Land Rover and BMW Hill Descent Control technology, but then the ML picks up speed and starts bouncing excessively, so you learn that ESP cannot be trusted to help you out 100 percent of the time. Fortunately, a button on the dash allows the driver to defeat the feature, as one editor noted: "After a few rounds of brake/speed/anchor, brake/speed/anchor, I just shut the frustrating ESP off." Then, coming down from the crest of the trail, the ML's rear tires lost grip and the entire rear end of the truck slipped laterally at one point, giving this particular test driver and his passenger a good scare. Another logbook entry was made: "The ML doesn't inspire much confidence in the boonies.""

Here's a link to the whole article:
( )

I think the 'American Beauty' comment sums up the M Class quite nicely :p
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You're correct, Healey's article is the not the only one to complain about the power reduction; I had forgotten about that one.

I guess it comes down to whether or not the conditions that Healey was experiencing were more on-road than off-road. I've always assumed (rightly or wrongly, I haven't given it much thought but now I'm starting to wonder) the Edmunds criticism was aimed at off-roading capabilities, while the Healey criticism was at on-road performance. Thus the concept that the Healey comments stand on their own, at least from an on-road perspective. But I guess it could be viewed the other way.

Edmunds was actually extremely positive on the on-road capability and ESP of the ML430 (which had 17" wheels over the then-16" wheeled ML320, and some other differences).

As one test driver noted, the ML430 is "car-like in its ability to translate road conditions into terms that the driver can understand." On a smooth skid pad we recorded .78g of grip, but in real world driving, the ML was vastly superior to other trucks in the test when roads turned twisty. We also tested handling with ESP engaged and deactivated on our skid pad, and found that the system worked quickly and efficiently to control lateral skids. With the system off, one driver felt the Benz behaved best in the slalom, exhibiting good grip, superb roll control, and easy placement between the cones.
BTW, I believe in 2001 the M-class got a feature like Hill Descent to address some -- but probably not all -- of the issues you mentioned. I don't know if it's as effective as the other vehicles mentioned, however.

Here is a more recent Edmunds article on the M-class, specifically the 2002 ML500. It's only a "first drive" article and a full review will follow later. From reading it, I think they thought highly of the ML500 (it's hard for Edmunds to praise anything but a BMW sports sedan). Unfortunately they're apparently not reviewing a 2002 ML320.

Here's a recent Autoweek article on the 2002 M-class:
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Thanks William, that Autoweek article made me laugh when they said: "From the outside, the second-generation M-Class doesn’t look much different from its predecessor, though several changes were indeed made." I'd be surprised if MB is actually touting the '02 as a "second-generation". Even so, with the possible exception of the Edsel, I've never seen an automaker so eager to distance themselves from their ealier work (e.g., we've made a thousand improvements). Can you imagine what would happen if you turned in a work product to your boss, and then said to him: "uh, you know that brief I filed with the court last year in that big case we lost? Well, I've been looking at it and I think I see a thousand and one issues that could have been better addressed". I'd be looking for a new job :D IMO, the '02 MClass is NOT a 2nd generation vehicle at all, it's more like a work in progress :p
I can't fault Benz TOO much for touting the thousand improvements. After all, Acura did the same thing with the TL and RL in the last couple of model years.
yoitsme said:
All -
Many thanks for the helpful input. I noticed that no one else seems to comment on the left footrest issue. has this been fixed in the MDX, or am I the only one bothered by this? I recognize that this may seem like a small problem, but doesn't it bother folks on anything other than a commute-length drive?
yoitsme- I agree about the left foot discomfort and several people have commented on it on this site. I'm 6'3" with some big, floppy size 11.5 feet. I'm always moving that foot around to find a comfortable spot. I think it's a real weakness, and I have a 2002, by the way. The only "fix" I can see is a redesign of the footwell.
My other big gripe about the MDX is the stereo system, and I have the touring. That said, I love my new ride and would't trade it for a MB.
The ML is a fine vehicle especially with the changes in the 2002 model.

My Left Foot:
They should make a movie out of this... I'm 5'7" size 9 1/2 shoe and I find the dead pedal area uncomfortable in the MDX. The ML has a longer wheelbase which seems to avoid this problem.

Both ML and MDX have been to the dealer on several instances. I guess quality is a issue of comparison and is relative to what you are comparing it to. IMO, the MDX is up to standard with Acura quality but I'm one of those people who wonder if quality would have been a hair higher if the MDX was assembled in Japan.

Snow handling + 4WD:
Since you seem to emphasize snow traction and FWD capabilities, and handling, I'm assuming that you will be off-road more than the average MDX driver. I'm curious, do you live in Yosemite?

Acura did design the the MDX for "Light-Duty", so in all honestly, it will most likely not surpass the ML nor the Grand Cherokee you have... But for everyday city/country driving, the MDX surpasses the ML in comfort and pure driving pleasure. By the way, the general concensus seem that the Michelin that come with the Touring Model, handle better than the Goodyears on snow.

Wind Noise:
I have the 2001 and can't tell if the windshield change has made the difference but I think part of the reason the wind noise is prevalent is because the engine is so quiet... On the ML, I have wind noise too but it's not as noticeable over the tranny.
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proskunetes said:

My Left Foot:
They should make a movie out of this...
they did make a movie called My Left Foot. Its about a piano player-i think. It even won some awards. But, i don't think MDX was in it.:)
changing direction...

First, many thanks to all who have offered their insights. Much appreciated.

I used the long weekend to go and drive the cars back-to-back. Honestly, I ended up disappointed by both. The MDX remains bigger than I need, and I just couldn't get past the uncomfortable left foot issue. I keep cars for a long time, and can't see myself shifting position on my way to Tahoe constantly for the next 7 years. Also, I still think it's too noisy for my tastes.

As for the ML's, I thought the 320 was underpowered -- it really strained to accelerate and made a racket. The 420 (they still had a bunch of '01s on the lot) was better, but I couldn't see spending that kind of $$ for a Tahoe car. Also, it's a gas-guzzler, and I still have some environmental sensitivities....:)

Tried the Volvo XC -- underwhelmed. Boring interior, boring overall.

Finally, I passed the Lexus dealer on the way home (Bay Area by the way, not Yosemite) and decided to try the RX300 on a lark. REally liked it. Much peppier than either the MDX or 320, and more comfortable than both. I recognize it's a little smaller, but I think it's ok for my needs. The objectionable egg shape is offset somewhat by the spoiler they've added. So I'm leaning that way, unless one of the mavens on this board can enlighten me to the effect that I'd be crazy to do so?
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I had narrowed my choices down to the MDX, the ML and the RX300.

My main two complaints for the MDX was the left foot area, and size of the MDX.

My main complaints with the ML320 was it appearing underpowered, and the navigation system was CD based and no touch screen. It did have the Parktronic which I liked. I tried the ML500, which had plenty of power, but I did not want to spend the extra money.

I liked the RX300 (my son did not think the inside looked too luxurious), but there are so many of them now, and next year they will have the new model with seating for 7. I dont really need the extra seating, but dont want to spend so much and seeing it be replaced so soon. If I went this route I would wait a year. I was also trying to decide if I should wait with the new Honda Pilot comming out, the new Volvo SUV, the MDX with a larger engine.

I tried the MDX again, and this one had the mats upsidedown to protect them, but somehow this caused my left foot to sit more comfortably. Maybe I didnt drive it long enough, but maybe there is something that can be done to make that area feel better. I still worry about the size, but it really isnt that much wider than the Lexus.

I know there are people who love their MDX, love their RX300, and love their ML, and I bet any of them would be a great vehicle to own. Seeing all the enthusiastic people in this forum willing to help others made me decide on going for the MDX. There is a wealth of help here, and I look forward reading the forum each day (this is my first post).

I am actually expecting delivery tomorrow of the Granite Green Touring & Nav.
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