It might be about as cool these days as dad dancing to Slade in a Christmas jumper, but Merc's first performance SUV was a genuine pioneer. Back in 1999 the Cayenne wasn't even a glint in a Porsche product planner's eye and BMW had only just shown the cooking versions of the X5. When this 342hp AMG-badged behemoth appeared Mercedes was creating both the fastest production off-roader in the world, and a whole new segment. Twenty years later, and with a multitude of high-riding 35, 45, 53 and 63 products AMG is most of the way to being an SUV maker with a side-line in normal cars, and this is the great granddaddy.
Not that the ML55 got a particularly respectful reception when launched. More basic versions of the American build W163 M-Class had proved hugely popular with aspirational British buyers - there were actual waiting lists to buy them. But within the first few months of sales the ML had already acquired a reputation for low-quality trim and some frequent faults. It wasn't much cop to drive, being only marginally more athletic than the P38 Range Rover which buyers were most likely to be cross-shopping it against.
The ML55 was blingier, faster and more expensive, but was barely any better to drive. It was its misfortune that early press demonstrators arrived in the UK in September 2000, at the same time as farmers and truckers angered by rising fuel taxes were mounting the first of a series of refinery blockades, which quickly led to panic buying and long queues at the few filling stations which still had supplies.
The magazine I was working for then was based in central London, where every station was displaying "Sorry, no fuel" signs. The delivery driver bringing the ML hadn't been able to top it up and the trundle down from Milton Keynes had used a third of a tank. I drove it to the Chilterns for a photoshoot which, obviously, included a fair amount of experiencing the sounds and G-forces of full throttle.
By the time I got it back to the office in Farringdon the trip computer was reporting single digit MPG, it had drunk most of its 92-litre tank and the fuel light was on. It spent the rest of the week parked in a corner and the guy who came to take it back arrived with several jerry cans.
These were the days when AMG badges denoted monstrous engines rather than handling, and the 5.5-litre M113 V8 was as charismatic as it was in its other applications. But the rest of the experience was closer to wrestling than driving, the 55 not being especially keen on turning, stopping or damping the effect bumps had on the firm suspension settings necessary to keep its towering centre of gravity in some kind of check. In an era when performance was still expected to come with dynamic prowess, my summary was pretty much that it would never catch on. More fool me.
Like many an expensive, show-offy product, the AMG ML aged quickly. After a couple of good years sales declined dramatically once the sharper-steering Porsche Cayenne arrived. Depreciation was brutal, and it wasn't long before the ML55 became one of the cheapest ways to get yourself behind a proper AMG V8. Especially when, as our Pill demonstrates, it's been around the block a few times.
Actually, presuming the block is 440 yards long and laid out in a square, 186,979 times. That's the sort of odometer reading that's likely to defy the optimism of even those who reckon six figures is barely run in for an AMG V8 of this era - although it must be said that the mileage is by no means exceptional for an M113 which has been properly looked after. Indeed, compared to the long list of common problems that afflict the 270 CDI and 320/350 petrol models it might even be the most sensible powerplant option.
Sadly, though, the AMG wasn't exempt from the many other issues that often blight W163 ownership, and frequently bit owners' wallets. Many of these are electrical, most of the rest are caused by the remarkable appeal that (some) Mercs of this era had to predatory tinworm. The ML is less likely to be afflicted by rust than contemporary C and E-Classes, some of which could practically be heard corroding on a quiet night, but once it gets its teeth into any 'nineties or 'Noughties Merc it doesn't let go. On the limited basis of the advert pictures our Pill doesn't look rotten, but there are still plenty of places grot can hide.
There's also no mention of rust in the MOT history, but unusually this only goes back a single year. That suggests the car may have recently been swapped from a long-term private reg and the system hasn't caught up yet, or possibly that it has beamed in direct from the planet Bork. It also denies us more than a single look at the tester's opinion, with nothing more than an advisory for a track rod end and worn brake disc when the test was done a fortnight ago. Our car is late enough to have benefited from most of the quality upgrades that were given to the W163 in period, and the seller does promise some service history, too.
But our Pill is also cheap enough to outflank concerns about its age, mileage or condition. For just under three grand it's well within winter beater territory, the sort of rugged and interesting car that gets picked to keep miles and salt off something else. It's two grand less than the CLK 55 which Pill kicked off with last February, indeed this ML is actually the second cheapest car to be featured in the column. The only one less expensive was a P38 Range Rover. The running costs of a leggy AMG are certain to be high, but they are unlikely to be much steeper than those of the Land Rover.