COAL: 2002 Mercedes-Benz ML320 – What’s Bigger Than a Breadbox?

Armed with my too small 4Runner and a stressed budget, I set out to research what would accommodate three car seats, side by side in the rear seat. Our kids were too little to make use of a third row. We were about to have three kids, four years of age and under. In 2002, the choices were much more limited than today. Essentially, you had body on frame SUVs of assorted sizes, and minivans.  I thought a minivan fit the bill perfectly, but my wife refused to consider them at all, for reasons not entirely clear to me to this day.

Notwithstanding my aversion to anything GM (after the Jimmy situation), my wife wanted to drive a new Tahoe and a Suburban. Those were quickly dismissed as being too long (the Suburban) and too tall (both). Though my wife had always been a “point and shoot” kind of driver who didn’t seem to pay much attention to the fit, finish, or even the make of a vehicle, she also expressed an interest in “that Mercedes thing”. Though she didn’t know the model name, I figured out she was speaking of the first generation ML.

These were pricey, but not overly so. I don’t recall details but my internet looking says the MSRP started under $37,000 in 2002. (that’s right at $50,000 today). The small BMW/Mercedes dealer close to our home (since closed) had only one in stock. It was a leftover 2001 model, and the 2002 models had a nice mid-cycle refresh I really liked. The differences were minor, but the headlights, taillights, front and rear bumpers, side trim, and wheels were all much enhanced in my eyes. The silver lead picture is a 2002 model, and the burgundy one above was a 2001 and prior version.

They offered to get more, of course, from neighboring dealers in larger towns. But by 2002 the internet was turning into a pretty good shopping tool for vehicles. This go round is the first vehicle I clearly recall shopping for, and locating, on the internet.

In my looking, I found a silver 2002 (identical to the lead picture) with grey MB Tex (vinyl) about four hours away down the interstate. We decided to take the 4Runner (for a possible trade) and go look. After leaving the two kids with a grandparent, my (very) pregnant wife and I set out.

Honestly, between being busy at work and having two kids with a third due any day, I don’t recall much about these years. It is funny what one does remember, though. The Mercedes dealer conveniently enough owned the Toyota franchise next door. They were interested in the 4Runner, but very skeptical of why we would be trading already. They pressed us repeatedly about whether it had been wrecked, and even called their body shop guys over to give it a close look.

In the end, the deal was struck, the Toyota dealer bought the 4Runner, and we went home in the new ML320. The three car seats fit side by side just fine (we had taken them with us to be sure). This was the first vehicle we had with factory satellite radio. It came standard with all wheel drive too (2017 ML’s do not), but it wasn’t loaded up. No leather, no V8, no body styling add-ons or upsized wheels as seemed to be so common on these. But it was the nicest car we had experienced by far, with nice real burl trim and very good finishes throughout.

The ML shared a new V6 with the E Class. If I had any reservations, it was with taking possession of one of Mercedes’ first V6 engines. They were known for their straight sixes, but this design was new and untried. It also had a strange (to me) three valve per cylinder design, single overhead cam per bank, and two spark plugs per cylinder. It seemed to me that in many ways, it was different just for the sake of being different.

Perhaps someone else can tell us in the comments why these features were superior to a four valve, twin cam, single plug design. I would note, though, that Mercedes sure enough reverted to a four valve, twin cam, single plug design for the next generation of V layout engines. So whatever benefits this odd design had on paper, must have not been borne out in the real world. The V6 and V8 engines of this generation did prove to be pretty durable overall.

This was also the first car we had that required synthetic oil. I’m sure it would have run fine on dino oil, but the oil change monitoring system needed synthetic (allegedly) to function correctly. The base line oil change interval was 10,000 miles, which seemed awfully long to me at the time. The computer would adjust this up or down based upon your cold starts, length of trips, etc.

This generation of ML did have third row seats, but they were an afterthought. They could be flipped up to either side of the cargo area, as seen above. And when they were in the “use” position, the occupants had nowhere to put their legs. You pretty much were sitting with your knees under your chin. There was also virtually no cargo room left behind them. It was odd, but we didn’t need them or use them. They also could be unlatched and lifted out of the vehicle, so we usually left them out.

The ML turned out to meet our needs pretty well. The three car seats of course fit, but the cargo room was adequate as well in daily life. Longer trips, like to the beach, called for the use of a roof container. My in-laws had one we borrowed a few times. We had snow where we lived, so the all wheel drive came into play as well.

I don’t recall a single problem we had at all. But by 2005, the kids were 7, 5 and 3 and bouncing off the walls! A little more room to spread out would be nice. Our oldest was now old enough to make use of a third row, she could get herself into and out of a car seat and buckle herself up. My parents had caught the camping bug again (they had a VW camper when I was born) and had bought a camper trailer. My sister in law’s kids were close in age to ours, at ages 10 and 6. We began to think that it would be fun for the two (or three) families to camp together. My parents in law, unfortunately, could not join in due to health problems.

The go-to towing vehicle for a camper trailer, then and now, was a pickup truck. My parents bought a new F350 for the task (they still have it, jeez what a creampuff). I wasn’t interested in, and didn’t have the budget for, owing a truck just to use a week or two a year. And, I didn’t want a full size truck for my everyday vehicle either.

My sister in law and her husband compromised with a used Ford Excursion, to serve as a family vehicle and to pull a camper trailer when called upon. However, she quickly tired of it in everyday driving. They bought a used Plymouth Voyager to serve as her everyday car, and the Excursion did the camper and extended trip duties.

So, life once again intervened to reorder our priorities. While we were happy with the ML, and it had been trouble free, it was apparent there were things we wanted to experience as a family that it was not suited for. It didn’t have the towing capacity for the trailers with a kids’ “bunkhouse” we were interested in, though I’m sure it could have handled a small one for a couple just fine.

While these thoughts and discussions about camping and tow vehicles were taking place, a friend asked me about the ML. She wanted to know how we liked it, was it reliable, was it expensive to service, and the like. Her realtor mother wanted one just like it. I told her that we might be thinking of selling or trading, and long story short, her mother bought the ML from us. And, she still has it to this day! She lives a few blocks away, and I see it all the time. It was rear ended (and fixed) shortly after she bought it, and she pulled out in front of someone and got whacked pretty good a few years after that. But it still looks great, actually, after all these years.


So, the easy sale of the ML put us on a path to find something suitable to be a family vehicle and a tow vehicle. My wife, by this time, decided she cared a little more than she realized about trim, fit and finish, and the hard to define concept of the “brand experience”. She had liked the ML and the attendant ownership experience, and really wasn’t interested in seeing it go, but something a little bigger and good for towing was on the radar.

What’s the easiest or (most unintended) sale or disposal of a car you have experienced?