Mercedes Benz ML500 Off-Road Build – Project Greta

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The second overland build: Project Greta. The platform: a 2002 Mercedes-Benz ML500, code W163, featuring a smooth purring 5.0-litre V8 snuggly mounted to a body-on-frame chassis belting out a voracious 288 horsepower and full time 4-wheel drive supported by a trick 4-ETS simulated differential lock system. It even included a BorgWarner 2-speed transfer case with a low range gear. Good lawd, what have those Germans designed?

It’s surprising that more people have not modified this vehicle. As of this writing the 1st generation M-class is one of the cheapest, luxury SUVs that you can pick up in the used market. Many will be pleased to know that the price isn’t reflective of the durability of this platform. The drivetrain has proven itself capable of absorbing bucket loads of miles and still running strong. Simple, basic maintenance is all that is required to keep one of these on the road and standard replacement parts are inexpensive.

2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163
2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163

Serious off roaders will frown when they hear that the ML has independent suspension on all four corners. IFS and IRS setups are not prone to allowing much wheel articulation on uneven terrain, but if you’re overlanding you probably aren’t jumping up and down to straight axle swap your Toyota’s IFS. In general, independent suspension is much more comfortable both on and off road compared to straight axles. I would know, my first project was a Jeep Cherokee.

The M-class weighs about as much as a Land Cruiser and costs about as much as a Jeep XJ but with more interior comforts. This model has dark leather interior with heated seats, a Bose sound system, sun roof, front/middle/rear 12v power points, and 80.2 cubic feet of interior cargo space with the seats folded down which means there’s plenty of space for recovery gear, an extra tire or two, jacks, coolers, and firewood. As a comfortable, long distance exploration platform this is starting to make more sense. I think the kids are calling that “over-landing”.

I’ve got big plans for this rig.  This will be a living article which, in the section below, will describe the modifications and upgrades that will turn this into a unique off-road creation.

This thing likes wheel lifts.
This thing likes wheel lifts.
Current
  • Tires – 35″ BFGoodrich KM3 Mud-Terrain T/A (35×12.5 R17)
    • Issue: Ground clearance and traction were two weaknesses that needed to be addressed. In fact, this entire build was based around these tires and to improve the off-road prowess of the W163 platform. 99% of the M-class vehicles that you see on the road will have summer or all-season, low-profile tires because that’s primarily where this Mercedes product was designed to be. The M-class isn’t as off-road capable from the factory as the G-class, but it can be brought closer to that status with tires.
    • Solution: Fitting the largest tire possible without fender trimming or a body lift made a significant difference. With a few minor suspension tweaks, 35″ tires will fit and are functional. This upgrade improves ground clearance across the board as well as approach and departure angles. The front bumper requires a slight amount of trimming or it can be removed entirely. The rear bumper doesn’t need any trimming, but I decided to cut some of the unnecessary bits for a slight improvement in functionality.
  • Wheel Spacers – 50mm 5×112 hub-centric black anodized aluminum (eBay special)
    • Issue: I wanted to retain the factory 8.5 x 17 Mercedes wheel which have a 52mm (or +2″) positive offset. Because these tires are so much taller and wider they need to be pushed out for proper clearance.
    • Solution: A slightly negative or neutral offset wheel would be ideal, but spacers also work.
2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163 off road
Trimmed rear bumper

Current
OEM rear strut with 1" spacer
OEM rear strut with 1" spacer
  • Front Shocks – Rancho RS9000XL (RS999187) for rear of a 1997 Toyota 4Runner
    • Issue: The factory front shocks only have 2″ of travel. Length is 13″ compressed and 15″ extended. Greater for mall crawling, bad for rock crawling.
    • Solution: The venerable Jon Kucyj discovered that a rear shock for a 97′ 4Runner is a great alternative when cranking up the torsion bar to fit larger tires. Specifically, the Rancho shock he recommends in his video has 7″ of travel, 13.5″ compressed, and 20.5″ extended – plus it’s 9-stage adjustable damping to fit various applications. The torsion bar needed to be re-indexed, cranked up, and upper control arm camber bolts adjusted to straighten the tire out, but it fits 35″ tires with minimal scrubbing on the inner fender liner which can be trimmed or re-molded for clearance.
  • Rear Strut Spacers – 1″ lift high density polyurethane by Infidel Garage
    • Issue: While the front suspension utilizes a torsion bar and shock absorber setup, the rear is an all-in-one strut assembly. So how do you get lift out of such a compact, non-adjustable component?
    • Solution: Spacers! 1″ is the ideal amount to fit 35″ tires with only minor rubbing on the inner fender liner. Ideally, there would be a kit with adjustable coil-overs paired with beefy upper/lower control arms. I haven’t found it, yet.
Rancho RS9000XL - 13.5" compressed / 20.5" decompressed / 7.0" travel
Rancho RS9000XL - 13.5" compressed / 20.5" decompressed / 7.0" travel

Stage 1
Front Bumper for ML by Infidel Garage
Front Bumper for ML by Infidel Garage
  • Custom Prerunner Front Bumper by Infidel Garage
    • Issue:
      • This entire build revolves around fitting 35″ tires. The stock front bumper can be trimmed slightly around the edge closest to wheel well to prevent the front of the tire from rubbing, but I opted to just remove the bumper entirely. Even with the extra lift and ground clearance the stock bumpers hang down much too low which decreases approach and departure angles. (pictures coming soon)
    • Solution:
      • First, a history lesson – the term “prerunner” has its roots in motorsport. It refers to a vehicle that is used to pre-run, or scout, an off-road race course ahead of the actual race to get an understanding of the terrain. These prerunners were often simplified, stripped down versions of stock trucks with a few light modifications to give them the same dimensions and capability of their race counterparts. One of the easier modifications to make to the bumper region is the addition of a simple, tubular design with skid plates that offer protection to critical components in harsh conditions while maintaining a lighter overall weight and maximum clearance. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the non-racing off-road community began adopting these stylistic queues due to their functionality and aggressive aesthetic.
      • I think the prerunner look fits the ML nicely. It’s already a heavy platform and the larger tires are not helping with that, so a minimalist design for the front bumper felt like the finishing touch for the front end without adding a ton of extra sheet metal. I also wanted to be able to attach a winch that was easily accessible but tucked as far back and high up as possible without sacrificing the precious degrees of approach angle that were gained over the stock bumper. This design of bumper also has more options for customization around recovery points and lighting locations.
Freshly mounted 35" KM3s
Freshly mounted 35" KM3s

Stage 1
2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163 - off road, custom front bumper, infidel garage
2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163 - off road, custom front bumper, infidel garage
  • Smittybilt XRC Gen3 12k Comp Series Winch with Synthetic Cable
    • Issue: A winch is one of those tools that you hope you don’t have to use, but it’s very nice to have when you’re good and stuck.
    • Solution: So how do we know what size winch to fit to an M-class? Take the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), this is the weight of the vehicle fully loaded with gear and passengers, and multiply it by 1.5. The curb weight of the W163 is 2,093kg, or 4,614lbs, but the gross weight is 2,870kg, or 6,327lbs. Using the gross weight for this equation we get 9,490lbs. In theory, a 10,000lb rated winch would be sufficient, but with larger tires, steel bumpers, and probably a roof top tent from time to time it seemed wise to go to the next level with a 12,000lb Smittybilt winch. To shave off a bit of weight I jumped straight to synthetic line.
2002 Mercedes Benz ML500 W163 - Welded shackle tab
Welded shackle tab




Showing 18 comments
  • Luis Jaime Chapa

    Im building my 2001 ml320 lifted already with 1 in block in the back re-index 1 notch the front torsion bars and made a custom winch bumper i will start welding the rear tire carrier, i want to install skinny tires 235 85 16

    • Aaron

      Cool! I would love to see some photos of your build. Feel free to email them to email@wanderlusthiker.com.

  • Richard Smith

    I too want to build me a off road ML like you. I’m a bit fuzzy on the suspension.
    Thank you for supplying the Rancho shock part numbers for front and back.
    I was thinking of searching for Bilstein with reservoir shocks. Haven’t searched yet. Do you know of any other shock options?
    Do I or should I add a spacer to the front springs?
    Thanks

    • Aaron

      The front suspension uses a torsion bar that can be re-indexed and bolt tightened to raise or lower the front end of the vehicle. To fit 35s I’ve re-indexed by two teeth/splines (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSB2ioVjrFg) and tightened the adjuster bolts on the torsion plates to set the exact height needed to clear the tires without rubbing. There are no springs on the front of the vehicle, just shock absorbers. Those will need to be replaced with extended travel shocks. I believe someone in one of the Mercedes Benz forums did find a Bilstein shock with external reservoirs that worked in the W163 platform, but I’m not sure if they had a lift and larger tires. So far I really like the Rancho shocks, but I need to do more driving and adjust the different damping settings to dial in the ride comfort.

  • Richard Smith

    Thanks for the clarity very helpful.

    Part of my daily routine lately is searching online car sales. I can’t decide if I should purchase a 6 or 8 cylinder. I see advantages and disadvantages for both. A 6 would offer a little fuel economy and easier to work on under the hood and a bit lighter. The 8 obviously has the power. Going with bigger wheels I just don’t know about going with the 6. Any thoughts?

    • Aaron

      I can’t speak to the driving characteristics of the V6 motor in the W163, but with the ML500 and the 5.0L V8 it scoots along even with 35s and heavy factory wheels. It’s not fast, but it gets out of it’s own way and cruises nicely on the highway. I would question whether there is much of a difference in trail driving when low range is activated. I suspect the advantage of the larger motor is the ease at which you can get to a trail, but the playing field levels once you’re crawling. The V6 has the weight advantage, and may also have the fuel economy advantage as well unless it burns more fuel trying to turn the larger tires.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Richard I have a V6 with 32″ by 9.5″ 10 ply very heavy tires, and the V6 is not bad, does accelerate good but does not have the low end torque you expect from a V8, still drive at 80 no problem, little vibration because are mud tires, and the MPG’s are around 15 in town at 70 mph the truck runs at around 2600 rpm’s.
      I like better the V6 because of the lower axle gear ratio
      Mine its getting heavy also because I have a winch bumper around 100 lbs and I only indexed 1 notch the front torsions bars

  • Richard Smith

    One more question.
    I’m 6’2” and potentially will be sleeping in it. With the rear seat folded or even removed do you think I’d be able to stretch out and lay down?

    • Aaron

      I’m unsure of the exact dimensions in the rear cargo area with the seats folded down. It feels large, especially compared to my Jeep Cherokee XJ. I’m 6’5″ so at some point I should probably test this to confirm!

  • Rich

    I ended up buying a 2000 ML 430. I measured the inside with the rear folded down seems to have enough room with the seat forward a bit.
    I emailed Infidel Garage never got any response. I was wanting his front bumper and possibly the roof rack. I’ll have to look around.
    Thank you for your helpful advice

    • Anonymous

      Hi Rich send me your email please, I have a winch bumper, let me send you some pictures, also lift blocks

      Mine is Luisjaimechapa@yahoo.com

  • Francisco Illanes

    Concuerdo con todos tus comentarios, yo estoy en proceso de preparación de un ML 500 año 2005, gran desempeño en trial y dunas. Al precio de estos mercedes es una gran opción.

    • Aaron

      Gracias, Francisco. Parece una plataforma sólida.

  • Anonymous

    Check out the YouTube channel “legit street cars”. He is currently doing a w163 offroad build with 35 inch tires.

    • Aaron

      Subscribed!

    • Jonathan Kucyj

      Glad to see one of my bumpers put to good use bro! If you have any issues with it, let me know. I bash mine but always welcome more input. Follow this guy and look up ML4DIRTY on YouTube for more fun. Then let me know when you want to join the cool kids club @ Infidel Garage facebook.

      Best of luck Aaron!

  • Cyrus J.

    Youtuber “legit street cars” mentioned he was looking into retrofitting a rear limited slip differential from a jeep Cherokee. It’s been a month since he made his last video on his ML55, I hope he comes back to it. Have you considered putting a locker yet?

    • Aaron

      I would love to see that video if/when he does it. While 4ETS is an interesting concept and functions fairly well, a mechanical rear locker would be helpful.

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