Are you an offroad enthusiast with a love for aging European luxury crossovers? While these vehicles are not typically associated with rugged offroad adventures, one man decided to take things into his own hands and transform a Mercedes ML500 W163 into a lifted beast. Meet Francisco Illanes and his 5.0L V8 powered Mercedes ML offroad build that is turning heads both on and off the trails.
Francisco is no stranger to creating one-of-a-kind offroad rigs. Hailing from Chile, where he felt the Mercedes ML platform was an underutilized option in the off road scene, Francisco set out to see just how capable the ML could be with the right upgrades. With custom suspension lifts, beefy all-terrain tires, and tuned engine performance, he has created a lifted crossover that can hold its own against Jeep Wranglers and Toyota trucks out on the rocks and sand.
- Luxury SUVs like the Mercedes ML can be transformed into capable overland rigs with the right modifications even though they are not typical off-road platforms.
- Essential upgrades like suspension lifts, fender flares, skid plates and all-terrain tires are needed to increase capability and protection for intense use.
- With custom fabrication and high-performance parts, unlikely vehicles like the ML can be optimized for off-road duty while still providing reliability for long-distance travel. This unique build shows that with the right vision and upgrades, the off-road possibilities are endless.
Mercedes ML Off Road Build
What makes Francisco’s ML so unique? In this blog post, we will explore: the extent of modifications made for optimal offroad performance, insights from our exclusive interview with the man himself, and just how this 2″ lifted 5.0L beast handles when taken off the beaten path. Strap in for a glimpse into a custom offroad rig built out of an unlikely candidate.
- 2” Lift
- Rear with studs on the spring,
- Front torsion bar adjustment
- Rancho 9000 shocks
- Blox Sport Wheels spacers 1,5”
- 305/65 R17 Cooper STT PRO (33″)
Engine & Performance
- 5.0L V8
- K&N Air Filter
Questions and Answers
Why did you choose Mercedes ML for your projects?
Because in my country Chile no one did it before.
What do you love the most about your Mercedes?
The sound of the free 5.0 V8 without a muffler or catalysts.
What was the most difficult part about putting it together?
Obtaining off-road shock absorbers and sending the rear lift to be manufactured.
How well did it behave off road, compared to other trucks and Jeeps?
Very good in dunes thanks to its power, in mud it is not Very good due to the 2800 kilos weight. In cracks it works quite well thanks to the electronic lock that brakes wheels.
Factory Off Road Features
While not an obvious choice for overlanding, the Mercedes ML comes well equipped from the factory for off-road use. It features a dual-range transfer case providing a low range gear, essential for crawling over obstacles at low speeds while maintaining control.
Additionally, the ML utilizes a 4-wheel Electronic Traction System (4-ETS+) to optimize traction by braking slipping wheels automatically. This is further enhanced by the “two-foot mode” which allows the driver to simultaneously brake and apply light throttle without defeating the traction control or Antilock Brakes.
This advanced system is extremely helpful for delicately maneuvering over rocky terrain or maintaining momentum up steep hills. With these high-tech drivetrain and chassis controls, the ML can flex its off-road muscles in low traction situations. Combined with the right modifications like lifts, tires, and underbody protection, these features allow the Mercedes ML to transform from a family hauler to a highly capable overland adventure mobile.
Its 4-wheel Electronic Traction System (4-ETS+) is enhanced with a bevy of off-road features. “Two-foot mode” lets you apply the brakes while feathering the accelerator without defeating the traction control or the Antilock Braking System – extremely helpful when you’re tiptoeing over rocks or starting up hills.
When using low range, the ABS automatically engages a loose-surface program that helps to shorten stopping distances from speeds under 18 mph. And our downhill traction function helps you manage a steady crawl speed down challenging hills by automatically engaging the ABS, redistributing torque to the gripping wheels, and allowing some beneficial tire “plowing” on loose surfaces?The Original 2004 Mercedes ML Brochure
Francisco Illanes’ custom lifted Mercedes ML proves that with ambition and the right modifications, even luxury SUVs can be transformed into rugged overland adventure rigs. While not an obvious candidate like a G Wagon, the Mercedes ML comes equipped with some key features that provide a foundation for off-road enhancements. With lifts, tires, engine mods and custom fabrication, this 5.0L V8-powered beast can now flex its muscles out on the trails. This unique build shows anything is possible with vision, skill, and high-performance parts.
If you found this unexpected off-road crossover concept intriguing, be sure to check our other articles spotlighting lifted BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne off road builds taking on intense trails. We dig into more examples of over-engineered luxury SUVs living their best lives off the beaten path.
Matt is a professional mechanic, experienced off-roader, writer and founder of Offroadium. With over 15 years immersed in the off-road community and 100,000+ miles logged on rugged trails across the Americas, Grabli shares extensive real-world knowledge. He previously worked as an automotive technician before shifting focus to specialty off-road projects. His passion is prepping capable rigs for off-roading and helping others to build the 4x4s of their dreams.