2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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by Greg Wilson


Replacing the ML430 is the new 2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500 with a 288 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 engine mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift, a manual shift mode. The ML500 offers a quick 0 to 100 km/h time of 7.9 seconds, a well-equipped leather-clad interior, and plenty of safety features including new curtain head airbags. Starting at $65,250, the ML500 is one of the most expensive mid-size SUV’s on the market.



New 5.0 litre V8 boosts performance

Mercedes-Benz’ mid-size luxury SUV was first introduced in 1998 with a six cylinder engine: the ML320 has a 215 horsepower 3.2 litre SOHC 18 valve V6 engine with a 5-speed automatic transmission. This engine provides generous low-end torque for around-town driving, has a very smooth power progression, and offers an acceptable 0 to 100 km/h time of around 10 seconds.

In 1999, a V8-powered ML430 model was added to the lineup – it had a 268 horsepower 4.3 litre SOHC 24 valve V8 which produced a commendable 0 to 100 km/h time of 8.5 seconds. In the 2000 model year, a limited production, high-performance ML55 AMG model was introduced featuring a 342 horsepower 5.5 litre V8 engine – it zipped from 0 to 100 km/h in just 7 seconds.

For the 2002 model year, the ML430 has been replaced with the ML500 which now offers a 5.0 litre SOHC 3 valve per cylinder V8 engine with 288 horsepower – 20 more than the ML430. Its 0 to 100 km/h time is just 7.9 seconds – making it quicker in a straight line than comparable SUV’s in its class except for the BMW 4.4is.

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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Apart from its new engine, the 2002 ML500 features some across-the-board changes made to the ML series for the 2002 model year, including slightly more aggressive front-end styling, integrated foglights in the bumpers, clear taillight lenses, side mirrors with integrated turn signals, and newly-styled alloy wheels. ML500 models also include standard bi-xenon headlamps and headlamp washers, chromed grille, door handles and hatch trim.

New interior features for 2002 include head curtain airbags, an improved automatic climate control system with rear controls, upgraded sound systems, front and rear power windows with express up/down feature, improved cupholders, and a bi-level centre storage bin.


Interior impressions

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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As you might expect for a vehicle costing $65,250, the interior is very well-equipped. The ML500 includes standard sturdy leather upholstery, 8-way power driver and front passenger heated seats with 3-position memory, burl walnut trim on the dash and doors and a walnut shifter knob, automatic climate control with rear seat controls, a premium Bose stereo, power tilt/sliding sunroof with sunshade, cruise control, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, remote keyless opener, and rear dark-tinted glass. Surprisingly, a trunk-mounted 6-disc CD changer is optional on the ML500 – I think it should be standard on the top-of-the-line model.

The ML500’s step-in height of 495 mm (19.5 inches) is high by passenger car standards but not unreasonable for a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The front bucket seats are wide and comfortable with prominent side bolsters, and the footwells are unusually wide. The driver sits up high with a good view of the road ahead and to the sides but the rear view is partially blocked by three large head restraints on the second seat. Unlike in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles, these head restraints don’t flop down with the push of a button. I would recommend the middle head restraint be removed when there is no centre rear passenger.

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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The instrument cluster includes easy-to-read white on black instruments, an outside temperature gauge, clock, and transmission gear selection indicator. The overhead console also has readings for the time, date, odometer and other trip computer functions.

Headlight controls on the left stalk include positions for Parking Lights, Automatic On, Daytime Running Lights, and Main headlights. I found this a bit confusing. Whatever happened to ‘Off’ and ‘On’?.

The wipers have a variable intermittent setting which uses an infrared rain sensor to speed up or slow down wiper activation automatically. This can be disconcerting at first because the wipers seem to have a life of their own – but it does eliminate the need to constantly adjust the wiper settings.

The steering wheel tilts up and down, but doesn’t telescope in and out. To the left of the steering wheel is a handy flip-down cupholder, but if you’re not left-handed, it can feel awkward. No matter: there are two pull-out cupholders between the front seats which have adjustable grips and are better designed than the previous one.

The Bose stereo in the centre instrument panel includes a large display screen which displays what station you’re on. It’s also used for the optional Navigation system and cellular telephone functions. It’s not a touch-screen though – most controls are traditional buttons and dials. Curiously, the volume knob and station-select buttons are on the right side of the stereo which makes me suspect it was designed for a right-hand drive vehicle.

The Bose AM/FM/cassette stereo system now includes two more speakers in the rear pillar, a new digital amplifier and Dynamic Range Optimizer. Though I have no idea what a Dynamic Range Optimizer is, I thought the sound was rich and clear with a great range from the low bass notes to the high treble notes.

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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To the left of the screen is a button to engage Low Range, a feature you don’t find on many vehicles with full-time four-wheel-drive. Low Range allows the ML500 to creep down steep, slippery slopes without braking so as not to upset stability and direction. It’s also useful for climbing really steep hills.

The automatic climate control system, which is a single zone system not a dual zone system, has three large, illuminated dials which are very easy to turn and adjust. The auto climate control system in 2002 ML models now includes rear fan controls, but not rear temperature controls. Front occupants can also control the rear fan if they choose.

It’s easy to get comfortable in the second row seats which feature a few inches of fore-aft travel. Rear passengers have generous legroom and headroom, a folding centre armrest, two pull-out cupholders, rear powerpoint and ashtray, map pockets and door pockets.


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The cargo opening, accessible by a lift-up hatch door, is 1066 mm (42 inches) high and 1371 mm (54 inches) wide. From the rear hatch to the back of the front seats is 914 mm (36 inches), and with the rear seats folded down, the cargo floor is 1829 mm (72 inches) long. The trunk includes a folding privacy cover, 12 volt power outlet, four tie-down hooks, a small tool kit, and a first-aid kit. The rear window has a defroster, wiper and washer, and the rear side windows flip-out with power operation. My only complaint is the rear hatch door doesn’t offer a separate liftglass panel.

Two small, third row seats are available as an option on the ML500, bringing total passenger capacity to seven. These seats are removeable, and they can flip up and attach to the side walls when not in use to free up cargo space.

Standard safety features in the ML500 include dual front airbags, side airbags mounted in the front doors, head protection curtain airbags for front and rear passengers, BabySmart child seat recognition system, five three-point seatbelts, five adjustable head restraints, child locks and rear tether anchors.


Driving impressions

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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The ML500 certainly is quick in a straight line, particularly for a vehicle that weighs 2210 kg (4874 lb.). The 5.0 litre SOHC 24 valve V8 engine develops 288 horsepower @ 5500 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm. That compares to the previous 4.3 litre V8 engine which developed 268 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 288 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. As you can see, torque has increased significantly, and that translates into increased responsiveness at lower speeds. Whether accelerating from a stop light or diving into an open lane when changing lanes in town, the ML500 is very responsive. On the highway, it passes with confidence and is obviously capable of going much faster than posted speed limits.

Cruising on the freeway, the ML500 is quiet and comfortable with a slightly cushy ride and a little tire noise. There’s very little engine noise because the engine does just 2200 rpm at 100 km/h and 2600 rpm at 120 km/h. The 5 speed automatic transmission, which includes the Touch Shift manual mode, is really well matched to this engine, providing quick kickdown, smooth well-timed shifts, and automatic downshifting while braking into a corner. If the driver chooses to shift manually, the gear lever is tapped left or right to shift up or down, and by holding the lever, the transmission will shift down sequentially.

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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The bigger 5.0 litre V8 consumes more fuel than the 4.3 litre V8, but not a lot more. The 5.0 litre engine’s fuel consumption of 16.8 l/100 km (17 mpg) in the city and 12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg) compares to the previous 4.3 litre V8’s consumption of 15.3 l/100 km (18 mpg) city and 11.5 l/100 km (25 mpg) highway respectively. The 5.0 litre engine uses Premium fuel.

Though it has a truck-like body-on-frame design and is quite heavy, the ML500 is very car-like in other ways – it has a fully independent double wishbone suspension with lots of wheel travel, plenty of maneuverability, and a tight car-like body. Steering is pleasantly firm at higher speeds, however I found it a little too firm at parking lot speeds. It has a turning circle of 11.9 metres (39 feet) which is a bit wide.

In handling tests, I thought the ML500 leaned a bit too much in the corners, but more significantly, I didn’t like the side-to-side bobbing I experienced in general around-town driving. The ML500 feels a bit top-heavy and not quite as stable as the BMW X5 and Ford Explorer. Still, it doesn’t have the choppiness exhibited by some mid-sized SUV’s.

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
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The ML500’s standard all-wheel-drive system is different to most other 4X4 systems. It uses three open differentials, front, centre, and rear, to distribute torque evenly to front and rear wheels. If traction is lost, the ML500 does not lock its axles like most other 4X4’s – instead, its four-wheel traction control system automatically brakes only the wheels that are slipping, thereby transferring power to the wheels with traction. This system works even when only one wheel has traction.

When traction is poor, the driver simply pushes the accelerator a little harder, the opposite of what you would do in a conventional 4X4. On very steep, slippery back roads, the driver can engage Low Range gear by simply pushing a button on the dashboard. In addition to all that, the ML500 includes standard ESP, an automatic skid control system, and ASR, a traction control system.

I found the ML500’s standard four wheel disc brakes easy to modulate and powerful but not overly sensitive. They include ABS and Brake Assist for emergency panic braking. At the recent AJAC Car of the Year test-fest, the ML500 stopped from 100 km/h in just 38.7 metres (127 feet) one of the shortest stopping distances achieved at the event.


Competitor overview


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There are only a few V8-powered, mid-sized luxury SUV’s on the market, but those that qualify as competitors for the $65,250 ML500 include the BMW 4.4i ($68,900), Toyota Sequoia Limited 4X4 ($58,205), Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland 4X4 ($51,850); Chevrolet Trailblazer LTZ 4X4 ($45,555); GMC Envoy SLT 4X4 ($45,670); and Ford Explorer Limited ($46,725).

The ML500 has the biggest engine and the most horsepower of the bunch, and the best fuel consumption next to the miserly inline six cylinder engine of the Trailblazer/Envoy. The ML500 ties with the BMW for the best 0 to 100 km/h time of 7.9 seconds, and offers a respectable 100 to 0 braking distance of just 38.7 metres.

In terms of driving dynamics, the ML500 is not as sporty as the BMW X5 4.4i, and isn’t as stable or as comfortable on the highway as the Ford Explorer and Toyota Sequoia. The ML500’s off-road performance, depending on the kind of surface, is probably as good as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is considered by many as the benchmark for off-road use.


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The ML500’s price-tag is considerably more expensive than many of its competitors though, and options can really bump up the price. To the ML500’s base price of $65,250, you can add options such as a 6-disc CD changer ($750), third rear seat ($1,525), Parktronic rear obstacle sensors ($1,480), Navigation system ($2,540), Tele-Aid ($2,030), and Skid Plate ($280). You can also dress up your ML500 with a Sport Package ($5,380), polished front grille guard ($1,470), external rear spare tire ($1,450), and illuminated running boards ($1,400). An optional rear entertainment system, which includes a ceiling-mounted pop-down screen, VCR or DVD player, and headphones and jacks, is also available.


Summary

With the help of a new 288 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 engine, the new ML500 mid-sized SUV performs better than its predecessor, the ML430, and goes quicker in a straight line than most of its competitors. However, I didn’t like the ML500’s side-to-side bobbing during normal driving, and I thought the price-tag was high.


Technical Data:

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500
Base price $65,250
Type 4-door, 5 or 7 passenger mid-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive w/Low Range
Engine 5.0 litre V8, SOHC, 24 valves (2 intake/1 exhaust per cylinder)
Horsepower 288 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 325 lb-ft @ 2700-4250 rpm
Towing capacity 2500 kg (5511 lb.) w/opt. Class 3 hitch
Tires 275/55R-17
Ground clearance 221 mm (8.7 in.)
Curb weight 2210 kg (4874 lb.)
Wheelbase 2820 mm (111.0 in.)
Length 4638 mm (182.6 in.)
Width 1840 mm (72.4 in.)
Height 1820 mm (71.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 982 litres (34.7 cu. ft.) rear seats up
  2300 litres (81.2 cu. ft.) rear seats down
Fuel consumption City: 16.8 l/100 km (17 mpg)
  12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg)
Fuel type Premium unleaded
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/120,000 km

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