Home » The Original Mercedes-Benz ML Was Weirder Than You Remember

The Original Mercedes-Benz ML Was Weirder Than You Remember

W163 Mercedes-Benz Ml Topshot
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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.

W163 Mercedes-Benz Ml Water Crossing

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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.

W163 Chassis

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.

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W163 Mercedes-Benz ML Low Range Switch

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?

W163 Interior

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.

W163 Front Suspension

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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:

W124 4matic Front Suspension

 

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?

W163 Mercedes Benz Ml Third Row

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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.

W163 Spare Tire Carrier

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]. 

W163 Mercedes-Benz Ml Rear

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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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Huja Shaw
Huja Shaw
1 year ago

My FIL bought a first year, first gen ML. That right there indicated it was the upscale K-car of its generation.

MDMK
MDMK
1 year ago

It was also really weird how quickly those first generation MLs would rust away from exposure to road salt; and not just surface rust but big holes all over the panels. It was very unseemly to see so many relatively new ML’s looking like rolling zombies.

Madewithgenuineparts
Madewithgenuineparts
1 year ago
Reply to  MDMK

and W202 and W203 C Classes, and W210 E Classes, and W220 S Classes… the rustproofing in those times for MB was awful

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 year ago

The Mercedes-Benz executive responsible for marketing ML-Class admitted that the manufacturer should have spent extra $500 on each vehicle to improve the quality. “A day late, dollar short” and “penny wise, pound foolish” seemed to be the holy mantra at Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s.

By the way, the stretched front coil springs were first used in the W124 with 4MATIC system in 1987.

https://automobileandamericanlife.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-mercedes-benz-e-class-station-wagon.html

https://avtochast.ru/mercedes/car/?region=1&catalog=44R&model=124.290&group=32&subgroup=015

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
1 year ago

My favorite Fun ML Fact is that Porsche nearly based the Cayenne off of it: https://www.motor1.com/news/592195/original-porsche-cayenne-almost-mercedes-ml/

IIRC, someone posted an ML in Porsche’s non-public vehicle archives building a while ago and I was like, IS THAT THE OG CAYENNE IDEA?! I really need to track down more on that origin story, I guess.

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
1 year ago

“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…”

What, you’re saying a Pajero wouldn’t make an exceptional luxury SUV? The mighty Mitsubishi “Wanker”?

Seriously though. They did do the “steamed ham” approach a decade and a half later, tarting up the Nissan Navara to be the Mercedes X-Class Ute. The lukewarm reception and very short model life of that car tells you just how well a Pajero based ML would have gone!

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
1 year ago

As I have written in these pages before, our 2000 — or maybe it was a 1999 — ML was crap. The picture of the dash triggered PTSD because I had it apart so many times. Everything inside the dash broke multiple times. Mercifully, ours was totaled.

Ron Boyce
Ron Boyce
1 year ago

I can’t believe I made it all the way through the article & comments and never saw the infamous nickname for this vehicle – the Alabama Trashcan. But given the techno-insanity MB is currently employing this will seem like a reliable machine. All the hybrid-infused, sensor laden, torque vectoring, 4 wheel steer, spitszensparken magic will be a real treat after a decade (or less, ymmv) of crummy roads, salt-laden spray, & general use. As long as it gets past warranty, who cares in the C suite?

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
1 year ago
Reply to  Ron Boyce

Hoovie’s Garage introduced me to the Alabama Trashcan monicker. Every time I see one now I instinctively refer to it as such.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 year ago

I’ve always liked the way these looked, but I’m a weirdo.

There’s a mint one that I see frequently around these parts, which is bizarre for Upstate NY. It’s gold.

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
1 year ago

I’m sorry to anyone who likes these but to my eyes this is probably the worst looking SUV of its time, and certainly one of Mercedes worst looking cars ever.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago

The ML can only ever be the second worst looking SUV after its Korean cousin the legendary Ssangyong Rodius.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 year ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

Do you have to mention this one-who-shall-not-be-mentioned? When I lived in Nuremberg, one neighbour was so obnoxious enough to park the visually obnoxious Rodius on the street. He thought it was a perfect vehicle for his equally obnoxious “marketing business”. So, some of the neighbours returned the favour by turning obnoxious and vandalised his vehicle so often.

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
1 year ago

We had one, with the third row seats! It was indeed inelegant. I’m not sure if I can even remember the transfer case. Ours was totally a mall crawler so we most certainly never used low range. We didn’t keep it long, as the engine started to develop indeterminate “German” problems which no one could really explain.

So much potential, utterly ruined by cost-cutting and a seemingly disinterested work force. Also, $400 to install bulbs and enable the fog lights (not cool).

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

It wouldn’t be Mercedes’ last collaboration with Mitsubishi: US-market smart cars used a Mitsubishi I3, and the smart forfour that wasn’t sold here was a rebadged Mitsubishi Colt (which we also didn’t get here)

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

We all thought that D-C was really a German takeover, but the torsion bars on the ML prove that Chrysler actually took over Mercedes.

Jay
Jay
1 year ago

That design of that suspension was set long before the merger. But definitely a weird time for Mercedes…

86TVan
86TVan
1 year ago

@DT: Steamed Hams. It’s more of an Albany expression.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago
Reply to  86TVan

I mean, it’s only the best episode of the best TV show ever. But he was probably at a boneyard pulling a crossmember out of some old Jeep when it aired.

Root
Root
1 year ago

Best episode might be pushing things a bit, but it’s certainly in the top 50.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
1 year ago
Reply to  86TVan

And all this time I thought it was a Springfield one, if not a trademark of the Krusty Corporation, all rights reserved.

Jeff Jordan
Jeff Jordan
1 year ago

My wife’s 1998 towed my 1st gen RX-7 race car on an open trailer. It did ok. although short wheelbase wasn’t ideal. I came across more than a few surprised folks on the fire roads when they saw a Mercedes SUV using low range in the dirt and the rocks. Lots of warranty work needed, but it was an interesting chapter in my vehicular career.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

I like the W163 more than I should. I also like that they made AMG versions of the M-class. ML55 hell yeah!

Just too bad we didn’t get the 4-cylinder ML230 that was exported to Europe and came with a 5-speed manual with a weird shift pattern:
https://img.classistatic.de/api/v1/mo-prod/images/fe/fe1badbe-94eb-46da-a7f9-4146d990c2a3?rule=mo-1024.jpg

Andrew Wyman
Andrew Wyman
1 year ago

That ML has grown on me as the years have passed. I definitely didn’t like them when they rolled out, but something has changed in my brain.

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Wyman

That may be senility. Trust me when I say that you don’t want to deal with the motors. Those three valve ones just didn’t work right.

Jay
Jay
1 year ago
Reply to  Crank Shaft

What? The M112 V6 and M113 V8 are among the most reliable motors Mercedes has made. For all their issues the engine wasn’t the main concern.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jay
Pat Rich
Pat Rich
1 year ago

Oh the ML. I remember when these came out. You have to remember that in 1997 the idea of a german luxury SUV was totally out there and that the concept of a smooth and swoopy SUV was pretty much constrained to the, then new, RAV4. I remember them first coming out with the little V6 that seemed…ambitious for the size and weight of the thing, but sorta in-line with the expectations of the day.

The rear seat arrangement wasn’t novel to MB, they basically lifted it straight from Toyota that was putting its 3rd row up like that on the Previa and Land Cruiser. My 2008 GX still has this system and honestly? I prefer it to stow in the floor. It doesn’t kill visibility as much as you would think when the seats are up and it’s not all that difficult to deploy or stow. Plus it means they don’t have to consume floor/underfloor volume to stow seats you may not even want in there.

With my Land Cruiser and my GX470 if I don’t want a 3rd row (which is most of the time), taking the seats out to store them in the garage is stupid easy (well on the GX…the seats in the 80 series are heavy and more annoying). And when they are out it’s like it never had a 3rd row. No space compromise at all. Sure, it means you don’t get good leg room and you have to ride knee high, but these were as needed seats, not all the time seats. And in 1997 you could throw little kids back there all day long without boosters and such.

Fourmotioneer
Fourmotioneer
1 year ago

DaimlerChrysler came to be in 1998. The ML precedes that merger

TXJeepGuy
TXJeepGuy
1 year ago
Reply to  Fourmotioneer

That was my first thought. Real DC product collabs didn’t start till after 2000 or so.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 year ago

To further confuse DT:

Aurora Borealis?! At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen?!

PajeroPilot
PajeroPilot
1 year ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Can I see it?

V10omous
V10omous
1 year ago

It’s hard to remember now since they’ve all vanished into junkyards, but this and (later) the original X5 were a revelation at the time. They were literally everywhere.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  V10omous

These, the X5, and the early Lexus RX were the ruling trifecta of private school drop-off lines in any moderately affluent suburb by the turn of the century

V10omous
V10omous
1 year ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

It’s crazy to remember in retrospect how many crude Explorers, Tahoes (back when they were a legitimate truck) and the like were sold to that crowd before the luxury models appeared.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  V10omous

It is crazy, the Explorer XLT was a luxury SUV before actual luxury SUVs came along in real numbers

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
1 year ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

God damn do I hate the gen 2 and gen 3 explorers…so many problems… such shitboxes. Meanwhile gen 1’s will just keep going (unless the heads crack).

The 5.0 2nd gens were easily the most reliable ones though.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bizness Comma Nunya
Jim Stock
Jim Stock
1 year ago
Cyko9
Cyko9
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

It’s Jurassic Park 2 and nostalgia that make me choose an M-Class over a Ford Escape or RAV4, but finding out these have even more gremlins than a typical ’90s Mercedes has me running away faster than if I’d seen a raptor.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
1 year ago
Reply to  Cyko9

In the late 90’s Raptor Escape would be a fun video game, but in 2023 it would be a trim level to sell a lame Ford.

Peter Andruskiewicz
Peter Andruskiewicz
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

The Mercedes ML there always seemed such an odd choice given the use case and the fact that the g class existed… Even constrained to MB products through marketing contract, why would you choose the mall crawler. Looks like they’re more capable than I gave them credit for, but still ..

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
1 year ago

And sadly more and more suv manufactures went with the traction control instead of actual mechanical lockers.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Any mention of brake traction control instantly prompts a flashback to the footage of a CUV flaming from the front wheel as someone floored it up a wicked-steep icy hill. I can’t find it now, but iirc, it was in Boston after a serious ice storm and the lady tried the hill multiple times before catching fire. Maybe it’s just me, but the only time I want to see rotors actually glowing is at a race track.

Rob Spiteri
Rob Spiteri
1 year ago

Great read! I never knew these offered a third-row, very cool. It’s like when people find out that the 3rd Gen Rav-4 had one. Strange!

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.”

I always wished my Disco had the third-row jumpers. The headrests were absolutely massive and came down from the ceiling. They were also extremely strangely shaped, like a stretched football/oval thing. But they were comfy and had plenty of room for me the one time I sat in them at a junkyard.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
1 year ago

Mercedes 4-ETS is better than this article is making it seem. Regarding open diffs and brake-based off road traction this MB system and the later Montero/Pajeros had a pretty good system you just have to be patient with it. Back when the ML first came out the ML and the Grand Cherokee WJ were some of the only 4wd/awd vehicles that were capable of the diagonal test (where only one wheel has traction, the other 3 on rollers).

The ML’s main problem was…quality…in every sense.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 year ago

I forgot these existed.

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