The W163 Mercedes-Benz ML320: Future Overlander Build… or Lost Cause?

The year is 1997; the world’s mourning the loss of Princess Diana, and celebrating the conviction of Timothy McVeigh. The Notorious B.I.G. is on the radio, and you’re sitting down to watch Jeff Goldblum star in the sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World. Not long into the movie, a pair of SUVs make an appearance on screen. Outfitted in camouflage, with all the latest off-road and dinosaur-combatting technologies, you can’t help but notice the three pointed star on the hood.

The pair get a decent bit of screen time, with one making a desperate and fruitless attempt to save an RV from going over a cliff. This was my first experience with the then-new Mercedes Benz M-Class, and seeing it dressed to the nines in off-road goodies instilled a resolve in me to own one. 

Nearly 26 years later, it seemed as good a time as any to seek an old ML out. I had done my research over the years. I knew which model years to avoid, and common problems to be on the lookout for. I was officially on the hunt for a W163 2001-2004 Mercedes Benz ML320. Being one of Mercedes’ most popular models, finding a used example wasn’t a challenge.

W163 Mercedes ML320 with Mat

Finding one with less than 200,000 miles and in decent shape for under $4,000, however, proved to be about as challenging as saving a baby T-Rex from poachers. I didn’t need a pristine example, given I planned to make it a mild overlander, but I did need it to be mechanically sound.

We lined up a number of eligible contenders, and ultimately landed on a 2001 ML320 with 119,000 miles from a small used lot in Clearwater, FL, about 60 miles from home. I wouldn’t mind pin-striping the gold paint on trails, and the tan interior had been so heavily worn that tracking in mud and sand would be the least of our concerns.

There were no lights on the dash, it idled beautifully, and didn’t appear to be leaking anything. The test drive went equally as well; no hiccups, weird sounds, worrisome shakes or vibrations. Everything worked, from the power folding mirrors, to the 6-disc CD changer; it even had the original owner’s manual. We paid $3,990, keeping it under my $4,000 budget, and began the trek home.

As we pulled out of Clearwater, we headed for I-4. It was going to be a long, slow drive in Friday, rush hour traffic. I didn’t mind, as it would give me time to get well acquainted with my new purchase. As soon as we got on the interstate, the troubles began. My husband, Mat, was leading in our SLK, and I attempted to follow as he overtook another car. Given the ML320’s 4,600 pound curb weight and measly 215 horsepower, I had to give it every bit of throttle it had to execute a safe pass. In doing so, the truck started shaking violently. I noticed I’d started losing speed despite the accelerator being floored, and the Check Engine light came on. 

We pulled onto the shoulder, but given the heavy traffic, we didn’t want to stick around long. We checked for anything catastrophic, and agreed we’d rather be running from velociraptors than sitting on the shoulder of I-4. We still had 40 miles to go, so I tried with all my might to baby our injured car. It was obvious I was running on four, maybe five, of the six cylinders. Worse, it seemed there was serious drivetrain resistance. The truck would slow as if I had one pedal driving every time I lifted off the accelerator. 

After a grueling two-hour drive, we finally pulled it into the driveway. The first thing I noticed was a pungent smell of burning brakes, and found the passenger front rotor to be glowing red. Within just two hours of our purchase, we’d experienced major engine trouble, and what appeared to be a seized brake rotor. It was nearly 10 PM, and we were exhausted from the stressful drive home. This would have to wait for tomorrow. 

W163 Mercedes ML320 brakes

Saturday morning, I was up by six, determined to make this Alabama Trash Can run. The ML320 is powered by one of Mercedes’ most reliable engines, the M112 V6. I knew our engine trouble had to be something simple, and sure enough, I found the culprit. The coil pack on cylinder six had come unplugged due to an old, broken plastic clip. I was able to seat it properly, and fired up the engine. The Check Engine light had turned off, and she idled smooth as butter. 

It seemed the caliper was no longer stuck, too. The ol’ ML was able to drive without any resistance, so we took it on a problem-free test drive to a nearby car wash. Giving us hope that the car had sorted itself out, we came back home, and gave the truck, named Donna, after the Parks & Rec character that owned a similarly gold ML, a much needed Treat Yo’ Self/Spa Day. 

Finding a few pieces of trim that were broken, we took it up to our local pick-your-part, only for the caliper to seize again. After yet another stressful drive home, it was obvious that this problem wasn’t going to fix itself. We ordered new front calipers, rotors, and pads, and picked them up the next day. The installation was a breeze, though it revealed just how much damage the seized caliper had done. The passenger front rotor was heavily glazed, the pads were down to metal, and the rotor had gotten so hot, the pad wear sensor had melted to the pad. 

While the truck was lifted, we took the opportunity to inspect the rest of the undercarriage, and were pleasantly surprised to find minimal rust, no leaks, and only a few control arm bushings that were in need of replacement. Otherwise, it seemed to be in decent shape.

W163 Mercedes ML320

Finally, we mounted the wheels back on, and took it for a drive. All was right in the world. It drove as silky smooth and quiet as you’d expect from a luxury SUV. In fact, it seemed to eat up the miles like it was eager to keep going. We obliged, given that’s exactly what this car was for, and went on a late night drive to round out an eventful and expensive weekend. We wanted something to go for miles and miles in comfort and without issue, and to keep going even after the road ends.

After four trips to AutoZone, a trip to LKQ, and three days worth of work, I can’t wait for us to be camping in the back under the stars, miles from civilization, with a T-Rex roaring off in the distance. 

W163 Mercedes ML320 dashboard at night

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