It’s hard to not love a normal-looking car hiding some unusual stuff underneath. Born from the DaimlerChrysler era, the original Mercedes-Benz ML is generally known for catastrophic quality control glitches, from rapidly-fading exterior plastics to leather upholstery dye transferring to occupants’ clothes, but that’s unfair. What the W163 Mercedes-Benz ML should be remembered as is an anomaly — a truly unusual German luxury SUV with no truly equivalent peers.
Fun fact: The W163 ML was originally meant to replace the G-Class. I’ll give you a minute to stifle your guffaws. Taking the steamed hams approach [Editor’s Note: I have no idea what this means, but I’ll leave it in I guess. -DT], Mercedes-Benz started on the first ML by working together with Mitsubishi to take a Pajero and cleverly disguising it as Stuttgart’s own cooking. For very obvious reasons, this didn’t work out, and Mercedes brought the project in-house once 1993 rolled around.
How do you build an Austrian-made four-wheeled mountain goat? First, you make a frame. That’s right, the W163 Mercedes-Benz ML is a body-on-frame SUV, a rarity among German luxury utes. Every BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, and Audi Q7 features unibody construction, and so does every subsequent Mercedes-Benz ML.
Mind you, body-on-frame construction wasn’t the only truck-like element at play. Every single four-wheel-drive W163 ML came with a two-speed BorgWarner 4409 transfer case. Do you think people used to E-Classes would know what to do with a two-speed transfer case? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t matter. While the 2.64:1 crawl is decent, the low range function developed a reputation for irritability, primarily due to owners never actually using low range. Standard operating procedure is to just spam the low range switch because it’s difficult to make a seized transfer case actuator any more seized. A two-speed transfer case isn’t anything unusual on an SUV of this vintage, but the prominence of the low range switch is. Instead of mounting it out of the way, Mercedes stuck it front-and-center on the dashboard, right next to the radio. Did Mercedes think low range was more important than the rear wiper?
While low range is great, things fall down in the differential department as every four-wheel-drive W163 ML featured three open differentials. Instead of expensive mechanical locking differentials, Mercedes-Benz experimented with traction control, ending up with the Four-wheel Electronic Traction System, or 4-ETS for short. While 4-ETS tried its damned hardest to distribute torque, it just wasn’t as effective as locking differentials. See, braking individual wheels creates an immense amount of heat, and 4-ETS will eventually pass out from heatstroke, entering ragdoll mode to prevent brake overheating.
Pull a front wheel off of a W163 Mercedes-Benz ML and you might be confused to not see a coil spring. While Mercedes was famed for its divorced coil spring independent front suspension setups, the ML took a different approach with torsion bar front suspension. While the Mercedes W124 E-Class paired all-wheel-drive with front coil springs years before the ML was a twinkle in Benz’s eye, its solution for getting around the front CV shafts was screwy for the following reason:
Yeah, that’s a CV axle passing through the coil spring. While I’m sure some Mercedes fans will opine with something along the lines of “If it’s stupid and it works…” but stupid and functional is still stupid. Fun, but stupid. [Editor’s Note: I’d probably just call it inelegant. -DT]. In contrast, torsion bars require very little height to package, and if you have the longitudinal space, why not use them?
Torsion bar front suspension sounds very strange until you consider the project’s development period stretching back to the early ’90s. In fact, Mercedes had been working on the W163 for so long that the latest market craze shifted from two-row midsize SUVs to three-row midsize SUVs. After hyperventilating, Mercedes decided it needed to cram third-row seats into the W163, packaging be damned. As a result, these rarely-optioned seats don’t stow away in the manner you’d expect. Since the third-row seats were a late addition to the ML, there wasn’t any under-floor cavity ripe for use. Once folded, these side-hinged thrones rotated up along their z-axis and got secured using inelegant straps.
While the contemporary Land Rover Discovery wasn’t any better on this front, you expect a level of jankiness from Solihull that you wouldn’t normally find in a German vehicle. To be fair, Mercedes soon realized the error of its ways and planned out the larger, more imposing X164 GL-Class, but the W163’s optional third-row seats remain a rare example of early-installment weirdness from the brand that once symbolized perfection.
However, the optional third-row seats weren’t the only things on offer to impede loading. You could also buy a W163 Mercedes-Benz ML with an incredibly ornate chrome rear-mounted spare tire carrier consisting of no fewer than 29 different components. Of course, carrying a spare wheel on the back of an ML would obscure both the license plate recess and the third brake light, which is a no-no in the eyes of the law. To solve this, Mercedes molded a spare tire insert with wiring for license plate lighting and a third brake light, then painted it to match each vehicle. For the sake of convenience, Mercedes-Benz supported the side-hinged assembly with a gas strut, and the whole unit cleared the rear bumper cover without any visible cuts. Needless to say, this was an exceptionally rare option, a product of a time when off-road pretense trumped functionality. [Editor’s Note: But is it as inelegant a design as the Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ’s? -DT].
While the W163 Mercedes-Benz ML was primarily used as a luxury school run machine, it’s worth remembering as a German body-on-frame SUV with torsion bar front suspension, a 2.64:1 crawl ratio, endearingly rubbish optional third-row seats, and a very fancy available spare tire carrier. Given its underpinnings, I can’t help but wonder if this thing would have been an overlanding machine if Mercedes had thrown in at least one locking differential.
We’re talking 8.7 inches of ground clearance, a 29-degree approach angle, a 20-degree breakover angle, and a 30-degree departure angle. Those are better breakover and departure angles than you get from a Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. Wading depth is merely adequate at 20 inches, but I’d rather have an ML out on the trail than say, a Subaru Outback Wilderness.
(Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz)
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“but I’d rather have an ML out on the trail than say, a Subaru Outback Wilderness.”
Really, you would? I hope the trail leads you path a Mercedes Service Center! haha
My dad bought a W163, I suspect, because it was a cheap way to get into a Benz in 2004. He let it deteriorate so badly as time went on. Never bought a matching set of used tires, always the cheapest parts for repair, the low range stopped working (not that it was ever used). Absolutely a trashcan if I ever saw one.
But it never did leave him stranded. It always started and ran, begrudgingly.
That spring with the axle going through it is the best thing ever.