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The 1998 Mercedes M-Class Changed America Forever

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author photo by Doug DeMuro February 2017

I think it's time that we, as a nation, sat down and discussed the 1998 Mercedes ML320, which changed our country and everyone in it. Like most things, arguments about whether this was good change or bad change will rage on for decades (or at least minutes), but we can be certain of one thing: It was a major change.

Allow me to set the stage. Way back in the 1990s, luxury SUVs weren't really something people had. If you wanted a luxury SUV in the 1990s, just about the only choices you had were a Land Rover Discovery -- which was a rough-riding, crashy, inefficient, unreliable truck -- and a few models that were really just high-end versions of normal SUVs: the Acura SLX, the Infiniti QX4, the Lexus LX 450 and the Oldsmobile Bravada. These SUVs were gaining in popularity, but nobody really could've foreseen the huge luxury SUV kick the country was about to embark on.

But Mercedes-Benz saw it. And they saw it early.

Initially intended to replace the aging G-Wagen, the M-Class was born after an incredibly long ramp-up that involved Mercedes-Benz selecting a spot for a U.S. manufacturing facility all the way back in 1993 -- before any other European automaker had done it, and before any luxury SUVs had really found their way into dealership showrooms. A location in Alabama was chosen in late 1993, construction started in 1994, the plant was finished in 1996, and the very first 1998 ML320 rolled off the production line on February 9, 1997 -- and it changed America forever.

When the first ML320 rolled out of the factory that day -- almost exactly 20 years ago -- it wasn't just a rebadged normal SUV like everything else on the market, and it wasn't a loud, rough, trucky, converted farm implement. It was a luxury automaker's announcement to the world that it was now in the business of creating a purpose-built SUV -- not for the jungle, or for the mountains, or for safari in Africa ... but for suburbia.

Of course, every other automaker took notice, and every other automaker followed suit. In 1999, Lexus entered the luxury SUV world with the RX 300, which was only loosely based on U.S. models -- unlike, say, the Infiniti QX4, which was a cynical copy. In 2000, BMW rolled out the X5, built at its own factory in South Carolina, which undoubtedly broke ground the moment BMW executives got wind of what was going on over at Mercedes-Benz. At that point, we were off to the races: The Acura MDX came out in 2001, the Infiniti FX debuted in 2003, Jeep started rolling out high-end versions of the Grand Cherokee, and Audi came out with the raised-wagon allroad, a desperate ploy to attract luxury SUV shoppers as they readied the Q7.

These days, virtually everybody drives a luxury SUV. I realize this is a bit of an overstatement -- but then again, if you spend any time in suburban America, it really isn't. It's amazing not only how many luxury SUVs you see on the road, but also how many models each automaker has. Take Mercedes-Benz as an example: From solely offering the M-Class in 1998 (the brand's U.S. lineup didn't yet include the G-Class at the time), Mercedes has added the GL-Class, the GLC, the GLC Coupe, the GLE Coupe and the G-Class, while renaming the M-Class the "GLE." Lexus offers the NX, RX, GX and LX. BMW has the X1, X3, X4, X5 and X6. The luxury SUV has sprouted wings.

And here's the thing: We can trace it all back to the Mercedes M-Class.

Although I've previously discussed the Oldsmobile Bravada as the first "modern" luxury SUV -- in the sense that it was smaller than earlier models, and based on a standard model, and marketed for on-road use -- the M-Class really moved the game along in a way nobody else had, with U.S. production, a purpose-built design and an open admission that it couldn't really go off-road, despite that excellent product placement in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," where one mud-flinging M-Class is partially eaten by a T. Rex. And it wasn't until the M-Class that everyone else finally began copying the formula and releasing their own similar vehicles.

And so, the M-Class changed America forever. If you drive a Lexus RX, or a BMW X5, or an Infiniti QX60, or an Acura RDX, or any of the literally dozens of luxury SUVs that now fill the streets, you can trace its lineage back to the success of a little Mercedes-Benz that drove out of a big factory in Alabama 20 years ago this month.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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