Published on May 9th, 2017 | by Subhash Nair0
20 Years Ago, Mercedes-Benz Launched The First M-Class
On rough terrain, no star in the passenger car sector shines more brightly than the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, which has been in production since 1979. However in the early 1990s, the Stuttgart-based brand also recognised the potential in another segment of the off-road vehicle market: comfortable, sporty vehicles for sport and recreation, with a greater technical similarity with passenger cars.
The key aspects of this vehicle concept were defined in 1993. Three years later, Mercedes-Benz presented the near-series study “AAVision” at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. The name of this concept car referred to the segment of “All Activity Vehicles” (AAVs), later to become commonly known as “Sport Utility Vehicles” (SUVs).
In May 1997, 20 years ago, the W 163 series Mercedes-Benz M-Class celebrated its premiere. This off-road capable SUV combined the best of both worlds: all-wheel drive, high ground clearance and generous interior space are important attributes of classic off-roaders. It was accompanied by excellent ride comfort even at high on-road speeds, a highly variable interior and a harmonious design.
It was the sophisticated suspension in particular of the M-Class that made the new level of comfort possible. In contrast to many competitors, the W 163 featured an independent front and rear suspension. The permanent all-wheel drive also differed from conventional systems: the M-Class dispensed with conventional differential locks, instead using an improved version of the Electronic Traction System ETS. If a wheel starts to spin on a slippery surface, ETS brakes that wheel until a certain prescribed speed difference is reached. This increases the drive torque to the wheels that still have good road adhesion. Acting together, the independent suspension and ETS optimise the handling safety and stability of the M-Class, both on and off the road.
New plant for this vehicle type
The M-Class had its debut in the new Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (USA). Construction of the plant began in 1995. Production of the M-Class – at first only the model ML 320 – commenced in February 1997.
On 21 May 1997 Mercedes-Benz officially opened the plant to coincide with the presentation of the M-Class. Four months previously, at the 1997 NAIAS show, the chassis and the powertrain with intelligent all-wheel drive and the newly developed 3.2-litre V6 engine were on display. With the sporty and comfortable M-Class, Mercedes-Benz took the lead position in the worldwide success of the SUV. The demand for the new model series was correspondingly strong, and it was very positively received by the motoring media. From 1999 to 2002 the W 163 was therefore produced at the Graz plant of Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG in Austria – where the G-Class has also been produced since its inception – as well as at the Tuscaloosa plant.
Initially, the ML 320 was only available in North America. From March 1998 onward, European customers were also able to purchase the M-Class. Alongside the 218 hp V6, the ML 230 with a 150 hp four-cylinder engine became available as a second model. Other variants of the first M-Class ranged from the ML 270 CDI 163 hp to the ML 55 AMG 347 hp.