Curbside Classic: 2003 Mercedes-Benz ML350 (W163) – Mercedes-Benz Deadly Sin #1

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(The Deadly Sin designation has been used here almost exclusively for GM cars that directly contributed to the death of that corporation. I described their nature and purpose here. When I saw this, it created a bit of a doctrinal crisis for me, since Mercedes never died. But then I revisited the actual doctrinal meaning of the Deadly Sins; according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a mortal or deadly sin is believed to destroy the life of grace and charity within a person. That applies well enough here.  PN)

I had the brochure for these. In my mind they were just about the coolest cars in the planet back in ninety-something-or-other when that title changed every time I got a new brochure or saw a new car on the street. I still find them extremely good looking. Sadly, they fell from grace in my head the second I came to understand the definition of the words “Quality” and “Reliability”

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The story of the ML starts, oddly enough, with Mitsubishi. In 1991 Mercedes came to the conclusion that their only SUV, the G-Wagen, was getting a bit long in the tooth. They wanted to get something fresh in the market and decided that instead of going at it alone they would develop the new SUV jointly with Mitsubishi Motors. This was announced publicly in June, 1991. Two versions were developed; one for Mercedes, the other for Mitsubishi. They both used the Montero/Pajero platform. For some reason or another, the project was cancelled in May 1992 (newspapers cited the wonderfully vague “Technical problems” as the reason.)

Me? The conspiracy theorist in me likes to think that they had a conflict of interest with their just released Montero. Or that the technical problems had more to do with different approaches at how to position it on the market. Who knows.

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Whatever the reason, it meant that Mercedes had wasted a year already, and the G-wagen wasn’t getting any younger, although the new SUV would end up not replacing it anyway. After the Mitsubishi incident Mercedes must have decided that the only way to go at it would be with a completely new vehicle. Since SUV sales were much bigger then in the US than in Europe, and also to spread currency exchange risks, Mercedes decided to build their first (and to date only) plant in the United States. The Tuscaloosa, AL, plant currently Manufactures the GL-Class and the C-Class, but back then its only intended purpose was going to be the new SUV.

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Back in Deutschland, the development of the new model was going swimmingly. Mercedes gave the people a taste of what was coming in the 1996 Detroit Auto show with the Vision AA concept, which had more than a little of the ML’s design in it. Finally in 1997, the first Mercedes ML320 rolled from the state-of-the-art Tuscaloosa plant to great praise. Motor Trend gave it their Truck of the Year award in 1998. It’s easy to see why. Now all the refinement and quality one was used to in a Mercedes was available in civilized SUV form, and technological advancements like stability control and a traction control system that could simulate locking differentials and without much sacrifice in the way of road manners like you would get on a G-Class.

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So why is this a deadly sin? Well, behind the shiny new technology and the pretty pretty styling hid one of the worst examples of Mercedes’ monstrous malaise era. As Jeremy Clarkson found out when he was invited to test one and the model that was presented to him had exposed screws, an ill-fitting trunk release and panel gaps so large that he could literally stick his hand through. Then, when he took it off-road, a piece of the sunroof weatherstripping fell off on his lap.

Owners began to report power steering fluid leaks, oil sludging if you followed the 10k oil change intervals, so many problems with the locks you wonder if people didn’t just left them unlocked so that when the electrical gremlin came at night it would lock it instead. The gearbox was the infamous “Sealed for life” unit. Numerous problems with the fuel pump and sender were also reported, as were problematic catalytic converters.
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It certainly wasn’t the paragon of reliability like the legendary W123/W124/W126. The ML was the antithesis of what Mercedes had been cultivating and promising for many decades. Mercedes seemed to get the message and set to work on sorting out the bigger quality problems, an effort which concluded on the refreshed 2002 model like the one featured on this article (Special Thanks to Brendan Saur for catching it). The window switches were still iffy and the 5G-tronic remained primed and ready to start slipping after 100k miles or so but it was a much more reliable vehicle nonetheless.

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That served it well until 2005 when it was replaced with the new (W164) ML. And this time they got it right from the get-go. It was much more reliable than the car it replaced. And Mercedes-Benz forums, which despite being filled with Merc lovers still admit the W163 was ‘poor’ in regards with reliability, seem to have a lot less problems with its successor; the most common complaint seems to be an unnatural appetite for tailight bulbs.

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Am I too harsh for throwing a deadly sin to the ML? Were the teething troubles just a compound of a completely new design built on a completely new location with completely different people and lack of experience in the segment all blown out of proportion because of brand expectations?  Nope. There’s a reason why we have those brand expectations. The “Spare no expense” Mercedes would’ve made sure that every single ML rolling off the line was as tight as a drum, it would’ve engineered it solidly without sacrificing any toys, and to hell with the development budget. Not this time; like the W210, the ML was developed by a Mercedes that felt pressure from the likes of Lexus and started competing on cost. Das Beste oder nichts became just something that was plastered on the walls at headquarters instead of something to live by. Acting in flagrant defiance of your core values is a deadly sin if I’ve ever seen one.

(N.B. – Photos of the featured black ML by Brendan Saur)

Related Reading:

Automotive History: Mercedes W163 M-Class