25 years ago Mercedes-Benz set out to build the first M-Class AAV (All Activity Vehicle).
Today, it is better known as the beloved Mercedes-Benz GLE SUV.
In January of 1996, the AAVision concept car was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), which marked the brand’s entry into this segment.
Since then, over 2 million models have been sold, which makes the GLE the best-selling SUV in the history of Mercedes-Benz.
At the time, Mercedes-Benz was in the middle of expanding their lineup through adding model ranges that covered more segments. These included the first R170 SLK Roadster in 1996 and the W168 A-Class in 1997.
Due to the success of the G-Class SUV as well as their passenger vehicles, the company saw potential in the off-road vehicle market which was based on comfortable, sporty vehicles made for recreation.
Two months after its debut, the AAVision was dubbed the “M-Class” at the Geneva Motor Show, which was the same name used when the first customer vehicles rolled off the line one year later.
Key components of the M-Class were presented in the concept car.
These included: the chassis, drivetrain with intelligent all-wheel drive, and a newly developed 3.2-litre V6 engine.
Premiere of the M-Class
In May 1997, the first production model of the W163 Mercedes-Benz M-Class was presented to the public.
Combining the best attributes from passenger and cross-country vehicles, this “AAV” offered excellent ride comfort with variable interior designs – all the while providing all-wheel drive, high ground clearance, and generous interior space – according to Mercedes-Benz.
Unlike its competitors, the M-Class featured independent wheel suspension both at the front and rear, which was the main component that added to its comfortable drive.
The permanent all-wheel drive system also stood out as it did away with conventional differential locks, and opted for an improved version of the Electronic Traction System (ETS) – which, if a wheel starts to spin, brakes it until a certain prescribed speed is achieved.
Due to these innovative features, the M-Class boasted class-leading handling safety and stability at the time.
Mercedes invested in a new production site in Alabama, USA for the M-Class – marking their first production site outside of Germany.
The decision to expand into USA was originally made in 1993, and two years later production on the facility started. Two years thereafter the first M-Class was built in February of 1997.
At first only the ML 320 variant was available. Later on the range-topping ML 55 AMG was also included, which produced 255kW and 510Nm from its 5.4-litre V8 engine.
Due to large demand, the ML then had to be constructed at the company’s Austrian plant during the years 1999 to 2002.
Over time the Tuscaloosa plant expanded – having produced 3.2 million vehicles during its lifetime – and today is responsible for the production of the GLE, GLE Coupe, and GLS SUV models for the world market, along with the C-Class for the North American market.