The ML430 doesn’t offer great off-the-line punch, but gathers speed quickly and has good passing power. The high-performance ML55 raced to 60 mph in just 6.2 seconds, but got only 12.9 mpg. Sturdy construction is evident, despite occasional body shudder on rough surfaces. Load volume is ample and easy to use, with a low, flat floor. Braking is strong and stable. A smooth, supple, on-road ride is the rule in an ML320. Firmer suspensions and low-profile tires make other models stiff over bumps and broken pavement. Step-in height is much lower than the SUV norm.
Seeking to create an SUV that drives like a car, Mercedes-Benz took a clear lead. A Lexus RX 300 or BMW X5 feels more carlike, but few true SUVs are more pleasant to drive than an M-Class. Outward vision is fine forward, but a bit cluttered by headrests directly astern. Wind and road noise are low for an SUV, if higher than those of the RX300. V8 engines emit a throaty roar under hard throttle, but the V6 sounds coarse when pushed.
The rear seat slides forward about 3 inches for extra cargo space, but rear leg room then becomes tight. Optional navigation system is hard to operate and complicates audio controls. Though an ML320 isn’t that snappy moving from a stop, the smooth, responsive automatic transmission helps get the best out of its V6 engine. V8 models are noticeably quicker. An ML320 accelerated to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds and averaged 13.9 to 15 mpg. Improved 5.0-liter V8 for 2002 had a 0-60 mph time of just 6.6 seconds, but averaged just 14.6 mpg. Poised and stable in tight turns, the ML320 moves with far less body lean than most SUVs. Steering is precise and linear, though self-centering is weak.