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Advice needed! ML320 v. MDX

4650 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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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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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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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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Glad you like the RX, it's a good vehicle too.

As far as the MDX's dead pedal (or lack thereof) goes, it's one of those things that you either won't mind or can live with, or will drive you crazy. Lots of vehicles have one or two little things that can drive you crazy and it's not worth it if that's the case.

As far as the ML320's lack of power, I understand you have to really mash the pedal to get power out of it. The throttle is not mechnically controlled and instead uses a drive-by-wire system and seems attuned to offroading, and gradual power delivery. However, the ML320 is definitely lacking in acceleration pep when compared to the MDX or the RX300, so mashing will only get you so far, so fast (actually the MDX is highly comparable in acceleration to an ML430).

Alternatives to the Volvo include the various Audi wagons, though they can get quite pricey (allroad, A6 Avant). But you probably wouldn't find them boring. The interiors of the mid-to-high-range Audi's are just beautiful.

On a lower price point and not quite the same luxury panache, the VW Passat 4motion wagon could be considered, as well as the Subaru Outback H6 VDC.

Would you consider a Toyota Highlander? Not luxurious especially when compared to the RX but a good vehicle. It will give you more cargo room than the RX300, and while it can sticker quite high when heavily equipped, can be found at good discounts. Else the RX300 is a great way to go.
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