2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350
2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350. Click image to enlarge


By Chris Chase

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For the longest time, if you wanted to go off-roading in a Mercedes-Benz, your best bet would have been to park an S-class on your front lawn. Or, you could have imported a Gelandewagen – essentially the German equivalent to the Hummer H1 – which Mercedes officially brought to North America only in 2002. But for most SUV buyers, whose idea of off-roading involves little more than pulling into the mall parking lot, the G-wagen is big-time overkill anyway, what with its military heritage.

So in 1998, Mercedes introduced a vehicle designed to cater to the typical SUV buyer: the ML-class. It encompassed all that was part of the Mercedes-Benz ownership experience: it was built like a tank, coddled its occupants in the lap of luxury and was available with powerful V8 engines and a V6 for those looking for prestige with a side of economy.

In 1998, all MLs were powered by a 215-horsepower, 3.2-litre V6 and hence were known as the ML320. In 1999, the ML430 bowed, with a 4.3-litre V8 making 268 horsepower under the hood. In 2000, the ML55 was introduced in all its AMG-tuned glory. With a 5.5-litre V8 pumping out 342 horsepower, this was the one that injected a bit of actual “sport” into the SUV equation. Then, in 2002, the ML430 was replaced by the ML500, which was powered by – you guessed it – a 5.0-litre V8 producing 288 horsepower. The next year, the ML55 was dropped and the V8 that powered it was instead installed in a high-performance, AMG-tuned version of the G-wagen called the G55. Also in 2003, the 3.2 V6 was replaced by an all-new, 254-horsepower, 3.5-litre engine, prompting a renaming of the base model to ML350.

While the ML320 was ostensibly the economy entry-level model, it was still a heavy drinker, with Natural Resources Canada fuel economy ratings of 14.1 L/100 km city and 10.1 L/100 km highway. The ML430 was rated at 15.6 L/100 km city and 11.7 L/100 km highway and initial ML55s came with ratings of 17.2 L/100 km city and 12.5 L/100 km highway. By 2002, the ML320’s fuel consumption had increased to 15.2 L/100 km city and 11.6 L/100 km highway and the new ML500 was rated 16.8 L/100 km city and 12.8 L/100 km highway.

2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350

2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350

2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350
2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350. Click image to enlarge

The new-for-2003 ML350 used fuel at a rate of 15.5 L/100 km city and 12 L/100 km highway. Those are okay numbers if they’re attached to a heavy-duty truck like a Chevy Suburban, but it’s abysmal fuel economy for a vehicle destined for nothing more difficult than commuting to work in a Canadian winter or hauling the kids to a soccer game. A BMW 325xi wagon possesses all the on-road, foul-weather capability of the ML while using about 8 L/100 km on the highway, not to mention at a much lower price. The same holds true for any Audi station wagon, as well as Mercedes’ own E-class wagon when equipped with M-B’s 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system. And any Japanese SUV will be more reliable than any of these German models, even if the driving experience is less inspiring.

Typical stout German construction helped the ML-class to perform well in crash tests: it earned a “good” rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) frontal offset test, and while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only tested the ML-class in 1998, the truck earned four stars for driver protection and five for front passenger protection in that organization’s frontal impact test. The NHTSA didn’t conduct side impact testing on the ML-class.

But where the ML-class totally flopped was in the reliability department. These trucks were plagued with lots of bugs right from the start. Over the years, the major issues involved fuel delivery (or a lack thereof), electrical and power-operated components (not uncommon for newer German vehicles), suspension and brakes. The sum of all these problems is that you’d better at least have a reliable mechanic who you can count on to keep your truck on the road.

While none of the German car manufacturers are known for world-class reliability, the verdict here is that just about any other European car or SUV will likely be more dependable than the ML. If you love all that the three-pointed-star stands for and you have an incredibly high tolerance for frustration, then maybe the ML’s propensity for problems would be an acceptable compromise, but the truth is that the ML is simply best avoided.

Online resources

forums.mbworld.org/forums/ – A huge forum with more than 30,000 members. The forums themselves are split up into many sections, with the ML55 AMG getting its own with lesser MLs lumped into a separate area.

www.mbnz.org/forums – This is an even bigger site, with more than 46,000 registered members. Here, all M-Class trucks – AMG versions and otherwise – share the same forum section, one that happens to be one of the busiest on the site.

www.mercedesforum.com – It seems there’s a creatively named site like this dedicated to just about every auto manufacturer. This one is relatively small compared to the heavy hitters listed above, with fewer than 10,000 members. Just remember that more members doesn’t necessarily make a better forum, but a higher membership does increase your chances of finding answers to your questions.


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003100; Units affected: 16905

1998-2003: On certain vehicles, the hose clamp used to secure the power steering fluid cooling hose to the power steering cooler may not provide sufficient clamping force for this connection. The loss of power steering fluid may result in diminished power steering over time and may ultimately damage the power steering pump. Correction: Dealer will replace the power steering hose clamp.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001229; Units affected: 57

2002: On certain vehicles, the left front upper control arm may not meet the specified strength requirements. The control arm could fail, increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: Dealers will replace the left front upper control arm. All vehicles are still in dealer inventory. No owner notification will be necessary.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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