Curbside Capsule: 1995-2004 Mercedes-Benz MB100/MB140 – Kim Chi Sauerkraut

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With Mercedes’ recent steps downmarket in North America, there has been talk about whether they are sacrificing their prestige in the search for greater volume and market share. Europeans would be very familiar with Mercedes-Benz vehicles used as taxis and fleet vehicles, as well as their truck and van models. The Sprinter, for example, is a high-quality and popular offering that has recently been making inroads in the North American market. From 1995 until 2004, Mercedes sold a less compelling van offering in Asia-Pacific, African and Caribbean markets. This is the Mercedes-Benz MB100/MB140, a front-wheel-drive, forward-control van wearing a Mercedes badge and powered by Mercedes engines. This was no Mercedes, though. It was a Korean-built Ssangyong.

Also known as the Ssangyong Istana – Malaysian for “palace” – the Mercedes MB100/140 competed with other forward-control Asian vans like the Toyota Hiace and Mitsubishi Express. Passenger versions were available in Asian and Caribbean markets, seating up to 15.

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Top: 1981-95 MB100 (Photo courtesy of Rudolf Stricker). Bottom: 1996-2003 Vito

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Finding information on these vans proved to be difficult. Confusingly, Mercedes used the same name on an entirely different line of front-wheel-drive vans built by Mercedes-Benz España. These boxy vans were derived from the old DKW Schnellaster, which dated back to 1949. The Spanish MB100 was sold in Europe until 1995 before being replaced by Mercedes’ Vito, which was developed from scratch but also manufactured in Spain.

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Mercedes-Benz’s relationship with Ssangyong often seems peculiar to those unfamiliar with the Korean brand. Their strategic partnership was formed in 1991: Ssangyong received Mercedes engines for their SUVs, and Mercedes received light commercial vehicles. Daewoo acquired Ssangyong in 1998, but Mercedes maintained its agreements. Daewoo would eventually sell Ssangyong in 2000, and it has swapped hands a couple of times since.

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Because of the Daewoo connection, the MB100/140 was also briefly marketed as the Daewoo Istana. The Mercedes, Daewoo and Ssangyong-badged vans received a choice of Mercedes-sourced 2.2 four-cylinder petrol or 2.9 five-cylinder diesel engines. The 2.2 produced 130 hp and 134 ft-lbs while the diesel had similar torque numbers but more grunt available down low. The only transmission available was a five-speed manual.

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The general consensus was these vans were entirely adequate and no worse than their chief competition. They offered a budget entry to the Mercedes-Benz commercial range and helped expand the brand’s presence in the segment throughout the world, but they were not an authentic Mercedes like the Vito. Still, should the Mercedes name have been affixed to a van no better than a Mitsubishi Express? Should the pointed star have ever been placed on a Korean-built Ssangyong?