Pros: Lots of power, fantastic transmission, great sound from Bose sound system.
Cons: Ergonomics of sound system controls, lack of sound system/climate control adjustment on steering wheel.
The new ML350 Inspiration Edition is a wonderful vehicle, and exactly what I need, so I bought one. I read the reviews of the M-Class posted on many Web sites, and I can tell you that the 2003 ML350 Inspiration Edition has none of the foibles of the earlier M-Class, even the 2003 ML320 (replaced by the ML350). I traded an E320 sedan which I drove since buying it new in 1998. The ML350 Inspiration Edition is comparable in comfort, luxury and quality of interior trim, has more power, has a firmer but well-controlled ride, and hauls everything a family of five needs to go to the lake on weekends, or can carry four adults in luxury and comfort with all of their luggage and golf gear on a weekend getaway -- things my E-Class just couldn't do.
I test drove a new 2003 ML320 before buying this vehicle. The ML320 wallowed on the road, leaned heavily in the corners, and you had to mash the accelerator to the floor to get it to "move." Then my dealer showed me the new ML350 Inspiration Edition, of which I understand only 900 will be produced. It has the new (and now standard) 3.7 liter V6 with 232 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque, comes with the ML500 wheels and tires (8.5" x 17" wheels with 275/55R17 109V tires) and the ML55 AMG upgraded leather interior. This ML350 pulls strongly, runs flat in corners with very little body roll and no plowing, and the rear end slips around in complete control. It is remarkably improved from the 2003 ML320 I test drove, and very different from the handling reported in many reviews of the ML320 of all years.
The exterior of the Inspiration Edition is distinguished from the standard ML350 by the same silver and chrome front grill found on the ML55 AMG, and by the ML500 wheels and tires mentioned above. The interior of the Inspiration Edition is taken from the ML55 AMG (deep grain anthracite leather, sport seats and black burl walnut trim) and is roomy, luxurious and quiet. The black walnut trim looks great with the charcoal leather. The white-needled and chrome-ringed instruments look much better than the standard (for the last 30 years or more) orange-needled tach, speedo, fuel and temperature gauges, and give the 1998-vintage dash an updated look. The material now used on the dash looks and feels like leather, a great improvement over the original cheap, hard plastic dash. The 8-way power front sport seats, with their additional thigh and back bolsters, hold the driver and front passenger securely. The seat cushions are a trifle short for me at 6' 3" tall -- not an uncommon problem for me in vehicles but one I did not have in the E320. Otherwise the seating front and back is very comfortable, with tons of headroom all around. You could make toast on the high setting of the heated front seats, which quickly heat not only the seat cushion but also the lower section of the seat back, right in the small of your back where you want it. I can envision using the heated seat in the summer to loosen up a tight back on the way to the golf course. The second row seats fold flat without losing the load length right behind the front seats commonly lost in other vehicles, which typically have the rear seat cushion hinge forward and the seat back fold down. The folding mechanism is extremely easy to master, and the legroom in back can easily be adjusted. The doors and tailgate close with that characteristic Mercedes-Benz "thunk." The optional Bose sound system is magnificent, and has a mode that centers the sound at the driver's head, so when driving alone you feel as if you are sitting in the acoustic center of the recording. One criticism of the sound system deserves mention: the on/off/volume knob for the radio/CD/tape/in-car-phone system is positioned as far from the driver as the designer could put it. In fact, it is the most distant knob or switch from the driver on the dashboard, and people with shorter arms have and will continue to complain about its location. Surely the nearby "Low Range" transmission selector, which will be used infrequently, and then only when the vehicle is at a complete stop, could be swapped ergonomically with this knob that will be used many times each day. And there are no sound system controls (or controls of any kind) on the steering wheel. As a long-time Mercedes-Benz owner, I am used to some of the quirks like the cruise control stalk above the turn signal lever, and the window buttons on the console instead of on the door. After about a week, it feels completely natural to have them where they are, and extremely awkward and inconvenient to have to "push a cruise control button on the dash to turn on the cruise control and push a button on the steering wheel to set the cruise speed and push another button on the steering wheel to accelerate and push another button on the steering wheel to coast," as in many other vehicles. With Mercedes-Benz, it's up to set or accelerate, down to set or decelerate, toward you to resume, and away from you to deactivate. Easy. One lever. No need to look and see if you have pushed the correct button of two (or three). And you won't accidentally use it to signal a turn after the third time you try that. The cup holders, objects of disdain to many owners, I think are perfect, but I am left-handed. One at each end of the dash rotates out to hold perfectly and securely a 12-oz. can of beverage, and keep it up where you can grab it without looking down into the console. The huge cup holder in the center console will easily hold the largest liquid container you would feel comfortable bringing into the vehicle. The back seat passengers have two cup holders that slide out of the rear of the center console.
Every day I drive the ML350 Inspiration Edition, I love it more. No squeaks, no rattles, no vibrations. Rock solid. I would have hated driving the under-powered and softly-sprung ML320 that I test-drove. The difference in handling is so dramatic that it must be the result of suspension modifications in addition to the wider wheels and tires, but I cannot find any source (including www.mbusa.com) that describes any additional upgrades to the ML350. On that subject, it seems as if the ML350 caught the automotive press totally by surprise. There are no reviews of it as of this writing, and all of the 2003 literature on the automotive Web sites and in the printed 2003 automobile buyer's guides talks about the ML320, with perhaps a mention of the 3.7 liter engine upgrade to come. The new engine is superb! Lots of power and torque, with nearly the same gas mileage as the 3.2 liter, and for much less money that the 5.0 liter ML500. The transmission is a driver-adaptive electronic 5-speed that matches the shift pattern to your driving style. It also offers the option to shift manually by flicking the stick left to downshift and right to upshift.
Tree huggers rejoice! The ML350 is rated an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. Worried about safety? The ML350 has air bags in all four doors as well as in the dash, and side curtain air bags for roll-over and side-impact head protection. Its front bumper is positioned at the standard height for automobiles so it won't ride up and over in a collision. Visibility in all directions is outstanding and better than in the E320 sedan. The ML 350 also features as standard equipment 4-wheel traction control, an electronic stability program, a downhill traction system, a "two-foot mode" for crawling over obstacles, ABS, brake assist to give full braking power in an emergency, and a permanent 4-wheel drive system with a 2-speed transfer case for off-roading. There is also an electronic brake force distributor to promote even brake-pad wear by shifting more of the brake force to the rear wheels in straight-line braking.
As for the competition, the BMW X5 is a four-wheel-drive sport station wagon. The ML350 is a four-wheel-drive sport light truck. They attract different owners with different hauling and off-road driving needs. Compared to the X5 3.0i, the ML350 is less expensive; is much roomier and more comfortable, especially for back seat passengers; has more power; hauls more stuff; tows more-effortlessly; and with its low range transmission and higher ground clearance can go off-road under conditions that would limit the X5's ability to keep up. They are both very safe vehicles. The X5's handling is excellent; the ML350's handling is very good. Other than that, the X5 does not do any of the things for which one buys an SUV (or an SAV in BimmerSpeak), namely haul people and things safely in inclement weather and/or off-road, as well as the ML350. The Acura MDX is a front-driver that transfers traction to the back when the front wheels slip, with a fake wood interior, fewer luxury, traction and safety features, and the same price. The ML350 has a 48/52 front/rear torque split -- balanced all the time unless extra traction is needed at one or more wheels. Lexus is Lexus is High-End Japanese: cushy, quiet, reliable, a dull drive, and always a year or two behind the Germans in engineering. I haven't driven the new Volkswagen and Porsche sport utes, and don't need to now.
The best is saved for last. Mercedes-Benz has kept the price of the ML350 in line with its competitors. When you factor in the tax benefit of owning a vehicle with a GVWR in excess of 6,000 pounds (the ML and X5 meet this requirement - the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX, for example, do not), a good argument can be made that the ML350 is the best affordable SUV on the market.
The much-maligned ML320 is dead!
Long live the ML350!