First Dirt! Is Our 1999 Mercedes-Benz ML 320 A Great Budget Off-Roader?

At $4,000, you may have a pretty good deal on your hands if you want to hit the trails

Modern, purpose-built off-road SUVs provide a huge range of robust engineering and technology to get you anywhere you want to go. Take the Jeep Wrangler for example, which has electronically-controlled front and rear locking differentials, disconnecting sway bar, two-speed transfer case and beefy off-road tires. The Wrangler Rubicon is a formidable off-roading machine, but here’s the problem: It’s not cheap. Spec one out to your liking and add a few aftermarket parts, and you’re in well over $50,000. But what if you could get a solid off-roader for a tenth of that price?

That’s where our 1999 Mercedes-Benz ML 320 comes in. It doesn’t have the same reputation as Jeep, Land Rover or Toyota, but there’s more than meets the eye with this German SUV. The first-generation M-Class does have a low-range option, though it does not have any locking differentials. To tackle that issue, Mercedes developed the 4ETS traction control system that simulates locking differentials by braking whichever wheel is spinning at a given moment. To see exactly how well it works, Tommy and Roman take the ML 320 up to the Ironclads outside Boulder, Colorado in the video above.

First Dirt! Is Our 1999 Mercedes-Benz ML 320 A Great Budget Off-Roader?
Mercedes-Benz opted to build the first-generation M-Class in the U.S., at its Alabama manufacturing plant.

Decent power for the money

When it first launched in 1998, buyers could choose from two non-AMG models. The ML 320 is the base version that came with a 3.2-liter V6 engine. It’s an engine with adequate grunt, making 215 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque when it was new. Step up from there, and you get the ML 430, with a larger 4.3-liter V8. That one made 268 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, about the same as most cars manage from their 2.0-liter turbocharged engines. Neither is a rocket, particularly mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, but you do get a decent amount of bang for your buck.

At any rate, it’s not just a mall crawler.

In fact, Tommy goes through all the good (and bad) points of the first-generation M-Class in the video below. Despite its faults, at $4,000 it’s still something you’d want to consider buying: