The Mercedes-Benz W163 is generally not remembered warmly, especially by previous owners. Though some on this site might have had better than average experiences, and Mercedes had sorted out the model range’s worst shortcomings by the time that it was replaced by the much-improved W164 in 2006, the first generation ML’s reputation remains marred by build quality issues and mentions of the platform conjure memories of the lowest point of the Daimler Chrysler merger and the general malaise of mid-1990s and early 2000s Mercedes products.
If someone would have asked for my opinion on the first generation ML a few weeks ago, having owned an example briefly, I would have said that its reputation is well earned. But the more I consider my ownership experience, the more I realize that I do actually have fond memories of my ML, it’s just that mine was a beater and so I set my expectations low, and the level of investment and effort I put into reflected that.
I’ve written about my W123 240D, which I do quite enjoy, despite it becoming a bigger project than I had initially planned for. I’m sure most of us have experienced this “scope creep” on an automotive endeavor before. My original plan for that car was to get it mechanically sorted, to the point where it is a reliable, quality driver. But it turns out that I can’t help myself when it comes to little projects on the car, and the expenses have steadily been adding up. That’s the way with project though isn’t it? People say there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap German car, and in the case of the W123, that’s proving to be true even with me taking on the vast majority of the repairs myself. Of course, the other cliches about the car hold true as well, so I can’t complain too much.
Perhaps it is from this perspective that I began to reassess my experience with the W163 and realized that it was a cheap German car (made in the US) that actually did end up being cheap to run. I bought mine, a 1999 ML430 in silver over grey, in late 2016 with about 160,000 miles on the clock. I needed something with a lot of space that could tow for an abortive side hustle that never really got off the ground. It needed to still be a decent driver for errands, getting out of town and the occasional road trip. And I was a fan of Mercedes, so why not? I would do the work myself so how bad could the ML really be?
Overall, I put 12,000 miles on it in the 18 months I owned it, including two trips to Northern Wisconsin from New York City. For someone living in the city and commuting on the subway, that’s quite a lot of driving, not to mention the hard knock life of a car street parked in the city.
When I picked it up, the truck was badly neglected by its previous owners and I–living in Brooklyn and not having the time or space to work on it–barely treated it much better, but it just kept going and going and was with me for some big moments. It was the truck that moved me and my stuff from New York to DC.
Mine was the top of the range for the 1999 model year, the year before the ML55 AMG was introduced. It had the venerable 4.3 liter M113 V8 and 5 speed automatic that ended up in a lot of Benz platforms in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was well appointed in terms of options, and honestly pretty nice to look at from 20 feet away. At that distance the hack job repair on the finicky “headlight trim” piece performed by a previous owner using–inexplicably–some kind of wood glue, was barely noticeable. Those headlight trim pieces were symptomatic of the mid-90s slump at Mercedes. They consisted of poorly designed plastic tabs that, I would imagine, have broken on 80 percent of the W163s at some point or another.
Interior wise, the car was in terrible shape when I got it, with rips and tears in the two front seats and cracks on the cheap, low-quality plastic trim around the bottom of the driver seat, and rips in the headliner from loading things over the years. The materials were certainly of sub-par quality, compared to the MB Tex and Zebrano wood trim in my W123.
I had no idea about the service history of the truck, but I wasn’t optimistic and assumed that most of the major jobs that should have been done on the car since it came off lease from the first owner were not ever done. That being said, everything that was wrong on the car was ancillary, the engine and transmission were rock solid.
The air conditioning had a pretty big leak somewhere that I never attended to, opting instead to top the system off every so often. The water drains were also horribly designed and faulty. I remember driving along and hearing water sloshing around somewhere underneath the car. I finally found out that the sills underneath the door had drains that got clogged easily. A couple of prods with a long screwdriver freed up a weak stream of disgusting water that took hours to drain completely. And the windshield drain never worked properly either.
Every time it rained the driver side footwell got soaked. I made a few efforts to remedy this, and narrowed it down to a drain under the windshield cowl and the wiper arms, which would need to be removed to clear the blockage. Mercedes for some reason used two different types of metal on the assembly which would corrode and basically fuse together over time if left exposed to the elements. After reading about how tough it could be to get the wiper arm removed to do the job, I opted to keep a squeegee in the map pocket and just do my best to dry it out with a couple of passes over the carpet if I noticed dampness.
Another terrible weak point was the electronic shifter mechanism. There are many Mercs of this era advertised on Craigslist for $500 with what the owner assumes to be a trashed transmission. I bet 50 percent of them have water damaged electronic gear selectors. If any hint of moisture made it into the gear selector it would go into limp mode. After I disassembled mine and dried it out, it functioned normally again. The problem is that these center console mounted selectors were usually within splashing distance of cupholders, which were of questionable design and quality in Mercs from the late 1990s and early 2000s. If you are asking yourself how a cupholder could be designed badly, just have a look at any W208 or W220 center console.
But the number one issue on my ML was its fuel delivery system that had several failed components. The fuel pump seemed to be working fine as I never really experienced any loss of power, but the sender was toast, meaning I never had an accurate fuel gauge. I was stranded because of this twice, so I started carrying an extra gallon in the back. Even with a feel for the range and mileage, I still got stranded another two times on cross-county road trips. I once ran out of fuel on the freeway towing a full box trailer worth of stuff and managed to coast right up to a pump before the engine finally cut out. Also there was some kind of check valve that is designed to hold pressure for starts that had failed, leading to some embarrassing moments as I had to let the pump cycle a few times before building up enough fuel pressure to start. I never got around to replacing the pump, though it really was a job that wouldn’t have been so bad and would have saved me a lot of headaches looking back.
Despite these issues, the car did successfully navigate two road trips halfway across the country and without every really needing a major mechanical fix. The only major job I undertook was a full brake service. The car did what I needed it to when I bought it, it required very little attention to keep going, and it could tow like a freight train. After a few months in DC I got rid of it hastily, and my ML ownership came to an ignominious end at a CarMax in exchange for $700.
I can say with confidence that while the W163 was definitely built to a different, much-lower standard than the W123 I have now, it might not deserve its negative reputation. Perhaps a bad Mercedes is still a good car… perhaps I got lucky to be out of it before it really started falling apart. What I can say is that my particular ML made an excellent beater and I have some fond memories with it, despite its faults.