Beginning in 1997, Mercedes-Benz redefined the luxury car segment by introducing the M-Class; a new midsize luxury SUV that would appeal to the masses. The ML was initially conceived as a replacement for the antiquated G-Wagen, which had been Mercedes’ only SUV offering since the G-Class inception in 1979.
When the new ML was launched, it was unlike anything seen before. The design was functional, an excellent translation of Mercedes-Benz design language into a more utilitarian form. Mercedes-Benz began developing the ML in 1993, while simultaneously seeking a location to build a manufacturing facility. Ultimately, Vance, Alabama, was chosen as the new home of Mercedes-Benz United States International (MBUSI). Meanwhile, the design of the ML was finalized in Sindelfingen in late 1993 and approved by the Mercedes-Benz board in early 1994. The ML would become the first Mercedes-Benz to be built and sold in the United States.
We believe the ML makes an excellent case for itself as a Rising Star, given that the model is currently extremely undervalued and these are incredibly durable vehicles. Mercedes-Benz now has a very deep-rooted history with SUVs thanks to the engineering ingenuity of the first-generation ML. Enthusiasts might also find that the ML becomes much more appealing once they learn all of the impressive abilities of the platform.
What makes the ML special?
Several appealing design elements make the first-generation Mercedes-Benz ML a great SUV. First, the platform is a body-on-frame design. Internally known as the W163, the platform is capable of handling anything thrown its way. From treacherous terrain to heavy payloads and high towing capacity, the ML is up to the task. Secondly, the W163 was designed with an advanced permanent four-wheel-drive system. The 4Matic system in the W163 features a two-speed dual-range transfer case with reduction gearing. Mercedes-Benz’s new Four-Wheel Electronic Traction System (4-ETS) is a traction control system that is able to simulate the effect of having three differential locks by individually braking one or more spinning wheels.
Alongside these advanced traction systems, the ML was also designed to be safe. The W163 was the first SUV to be sold with side-impact airbags and electronic stability control, bringing peace of mind to ML owners. The crash structure was designed using the principle of partner protection; essentially the structure of the ML was designed with a lowered frame to compensate for any impact energy from another vehicle. The W163 underwent extensive crash testing during development to ensure that the new platform was as safe as possible. Not only was the ML tested for crash worthiness, but the platform was also comprehensively tested for 18 months across various regions and terrains. The W163 was deemed the safest SUV of its time.
The W163 was launched in 1997 as the ML320, powered by the 3.2-liter M112 V-6 engine. The M112 was rated at 215 horsepower, and brought the ML to 60 miles per hour in 9.5 seconds. While that's nothing to brag about, the SUV's power feels adequate and longevity is guaranteed. In 1999, the ML430 was launched with 268 horsepower from the 4.3-liter M113 V-8. In 2001, the ML430 was replaced by the ML500, featuring increased displacement of 5.0 liters in the M113. In 2002, the ML320 was replaced by the ML350, which increased rated horsepower and marginally lowered the 0-60 time.
Regardless of engine choice, each vehicle featured a 5G-Tronic five-speed automatic transmission. Every engine choice in the ML is considered to be outstandingly reliable and durable. In 2001, the W163 received a facelift, addressing styling cues such as the front and rear bumpers, headlights and tail lights, new wheel options for most cars, new side-mirrors, as well as a very noticeable increase in interior fit and finish.
ML55 & special editions
No true Mercedes-Benz range would be complete without the option of an AMG variant. The ML55 AMG satisfied the need for a high-performance sports utility vehicle. Featuring an AMG-built 5.4-liter M113 V-8 rated at 342 horsepower, the ML55 is able to accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 6.7 seconds.
Apart from the engine and technical upgrades, the ML55 is distinguished by a wide-body kit and special wheels and sport bumpers. The icing on the cake Is the designo Cognac Edition which finishes the ML in a beautiful shade of Designo Bourbon Metallic, paired with a two-tone Charcoal and Dark Brown Nappa leather interior trim on the seats, door panels, shift knob, steering wheel, as well as Natural Poplar veneer trim.
Buying a W163 ML
Any first-generational ML is extremely undervalued in today’s used car market. Clean examples of all models can be found within the $5,000-$7,000 range. The price difference between V-6 and V-8 cars is nominal, and both displacements are satisfying. The decision is yours to make, whether you prefer increased power or efficiency.
Those seeking the exhilaration of the ML55 would be surprised to find that a tidy ML55 can be found for only a few thousand more than the previously quoted numbers.
Later-year models benefitted from many great improvements not only in the design of the vehicle, but also in fit and finish. Earlier examples seemed to suffer from sub-par interior quality and materials. That being said, the design of a pre-facelift ML is much more robust. Facelift ML examples strived to correct the definition of what a luxury SUV should offer its customers, featuring more refined interior surfaces and cosmetic upgrades.
The biggest plague of the W163 ML is rust, so if you are looking for a car in a four-season and salted climate, make a rust-free body your top priority. To best represent the price spectrum of the W163 ML, The MB Market sold a 2001 ML320 for $6,250 whereas a 2001 ML55 sold for $13,250.
Prior to the W163 M-Class launch, Mercedes-Benz provided pre-production vehicles to the film The Lost World: Jurassic Park. If you have seen the film, the ML320s are camouflaged and reinforced with off-road bumpers, beefy steel framing, and roof mounted equipment.
The ML’s film service provided an excellent launch for the range's marketing and publicity. Apart from being a movie star, the W163 ML also received call sheets for many film sets. The W163 platform (particularly the ML55) was converted for camera use featuring a “Russian Arm” to aid in capturing smooth high-speed footage needed to make many great films.
The motoring press was similarly enthusiastic. In 1998 the W163 received Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year award, as well as The North American Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In 1999, the ML was also awarded the World Car Award. Finally, an W163 ML also served as the Popemobile for a considerable length of time.
Affordable and destined for classic status
The W163 ML is a great choice if you want an affordable, capable Mercedes-Benz SUV. In future years, we believe the remaining quality examples of this vehicle will gain value and respect from both Mercedes-Benz enthusiasts and the collector vehicle market at large. Now is the perfect time to make an investment in an ML.