Vintage R & T Review: 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML 320 (W163) · Luxurious Techno Tour De Force?

“Mercedes’ new SUV is a techno tour de force, a standout player” says Road and Track early in their review, and that exemplifies the hype surrounding the launch of MB’s new line of SUVs. An ‘accessible’ Mercedes 4WD for the suburbanites; who wasn’t excited? Could the Germans do –cheap– affordable and reliable?

The W163-chassis ML has a tarnished legacy, to say the least. It earned Deadly-Sin status in these very pages, though not without some soul searching—and it has received less-than-glowing commentary. But remember the SUV-market context in which the M-Class was conceived: a segment full of outdated truck-based models tarted up with ‘luxury’ gingerbread, such as the Infinity QX4 (Nissan Pathfinder) and the Acura SLX (Isuzu Trooper), to name two of the many.

The market was open for whoever would field an SUV for the ’90s: built from scratch for the task, bringing a carlike driving experience while also possessing the SUV qualities buyers wanted. Mercedes and Lexus took up the mission; Mercedes got there first, launching in early ’97, with Lexus arriving a year later with the RX. Expectations and desire were high for the new M-Class, as it shows in R&T’s review, which gushes with praise from beginning to end.

In regards of the M-Class’ brief, Mercedes’ instincts were more or less correct about the real and/or perceived needs of the rising luxury SUV market. The M-Class was to be built on a new platform, offering off-road capabilities while offering carlike comfort and ease of use. A newly- developed Electronic Traction System would make any terrain suburbanite-safe. There’d be a new, cleaner-running 18-valve V6 engine. Aluminum suspension and drivetrain components would reduce unsprung weight. There would be all the luxury accoutrements typical of the era. And all of this was to be wrapped in the most modern-looking SUV shape yet seen. It would sell at discount prices (what passed for ‘discount pricing’ by M-B standards, anyway), and was to be assembled in a new factory in Alabama, USA. New workers making a new model with new technology in a new factory…would that equal out to lower costs? Could the company be overreaching?

German brands had developed such a reputation by the ’90s that their any and every PR spin was swallowed whole by the media and the general public. What was being offered seemed beyond the grasp of any company, but if anyone could do it, wouldn’t it be the Germans?

Well…not quite. The first-generation ML 320 was indeed groundbreaking for the class, but it soiled its legacy; Lexus wound up doing a better and more dependable job of what the M-Class attempted, and so gained better traction (and a better reputation) in the evolving luxury SUV market.

Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 2003 Mercedes-Benz ML 350 – Deadly Sin #1

Automotive History: Mercedes W163 – Conceived In Germany, Born In America