The 2009 Mercedes-Benz ML320 looks nearly identical to the ML350 and ML550, but is totally different to drive, mostly because the ML320 is a clean-burning diesel. Maybe it's like dating twins, although I've never done it so I can't say for sure. If you have, let me know if I'm totally off-base (I promise not to judge you).
This diesel is touchy and uppity. It takes some time to figure out how to finesse it because it's pretty hyper. I was snapping everyone's heads around for a day or so until I got used to it. Technically it's called torque, but I call it herky-jerky. Whatever you call it, it required me to make some adjustments to the way I drove. The smaller diesel engine is quite powerful. On paper, it has much less horsepower than the other models, but I never felt that it was lacking. The EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg city/highway is much better than the ML550's 13/18 mpg with its gas-guzzling V-8. Am I worried about getting stuck out in the world without a nearby gas station that has diesel fuel? Nope: Mercedes' Comand information and entertainment system instantly finds gas stations with diesel for me. It's a nice touch for those of us who can be paranoid about that sort of thing.
The ML320's BlueTec system makes this diesel vehicle emissions-compliant in all 50 states. This is achieved with a urea additive, AdBlue, that mixes with exhaust fumes and reduces the car's emissions. Click here to learn more about BlueTec. The engine is pretty quiet, but it still has that diesel sort of growl that's loudest when idling.
Like its siblings, the ML320 wins me over in the looks department. It's not trying to convince me that it's not a completely civilized SUV. It didn't need me to know that it can navigate almost any surface with its fancy off-roading technology, yet I adjusted the step-in height and the suspension with the press of a button. I put the ML into a crawling gear with the push of yet another button. Look out, world.
The grille is an interesting feature; its hole-punched chrome makes the ML look modern and kind of aggressive. It's a nice balance with the rest of the car, which is smooth and lean-looking. The ML320 looked like it had a lower profile despite the doors being nice and tall. It was easy for my kiddos to get into the ML, and they were able to reach the door handle just fine. It should be noted, however, that my 4-year-old is in the 95th percentile for height, just so you know.
The ML pampered me with its power liftgate, a feature that simplified my mommy life beyond words. The Night Security Illumination package helped rid me of the heebie-jeebies I feel whenever I walk to my car at night; I'm always worried someone's evil twin is lurking under my car.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great-Excellent (black interior shows scuff marks)
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove On
Even though it's fuel-efficient and has clean emissions, the ML320 is still a luxury vehicle. She'd spare nothing to prove it, as evidenced by the beautiful leather seats, wood-inlaid panels and almost more features than you can handle.
Hey, wait, did I say leather seats? I meant MB-Tex. MB-Tex isn't real leather, but it'll fool you into thinking it is. The inevitable sneaker scuff marks came out of it easily, and the kiddy gunk wiped off without a hitch.
Speaking of hitches, I did find one with the ML320: The backup camera image doesn't automatically come up on the screen if the entertainment system isn't on. This was a disappointment because the camera should come on without any sort of precondition. Also, I have to confess I couldn't get the DVD player to work. I had to ask MotherProof's tech geek Emily Hansen to help me out. It turns out that the batteries in the remote were in backward. I have to say that I love a rear entertainment system that's easy to use - once you put the batteries into it correctly. Each kid had their own system and could watch their own movie or plug in their gadget.
There were so many techie features in the ML, including an iPod/MP3 media interface, in-dash SD memory card reader and Bluetooth interface for hands-free calling. I generally struggle with this stuff, but the Comand system was easier to use than most, and I figured it out quickly.
The kids also had plenty of room, which was another thing I loved about the ML. The Latch connectors were easy to access, and kids of all ages could happily log hours in there. Maybe they won't be happy all the time, but they certainly won't be cramped.
I have to tell you about the heated steering wheel. Before I do, let me just say that I'm not someone who falls for the first over-the-top car gadget that comes along, but I'm starting to worry about myself. Seriously, is there anything that is more ludicrous than a heated steering wheel? Only on paper, my friends. In real life, it was freaking awesome. Since it snowed during my test drive, the heated steering wheel became one of my favorite over-the-top test-car features.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
The ML320's safety features left no stone unturned. The ML felt safe and solid on the road. The doors close with a reassuring sound; everything has a nice, quality feel to it.
The ML320 has eight standard airbags (including dual-stage front airbags for the driver and front passenger, and side curtain and rear side airbags for passengers in the back), active front head restraints, an electronic stability system, traction system, rollover sensors and 24-hour roadside assistance.
In Diapers: There's enough room for rear-facing infant seats.
In School: Plenty of cargo room for up-and-coming hobbyists.
Teens: There's space for teens' gangly legs and all their stuff.
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