Mercedes announced its intention to make a new large 4x4 in 1990 and formulated plans to develop it with Mitsubishi in 1991. However, the collaboration ended the following year and Mercedes decided to go it alone. But it still took until February 1997 to design and develop the W163 M-Class and build a factory in which to make it, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The original ML was criticised for poor material quality and refinement, and it wasn’t until the Mk2 ML in 2005 that most of those criticisms were addressed.

Years on, Mercedes’ big American gamble is really paying off. Daimler AG’s Alabama factory is established and producing more than 100,000 cars a year, mainly for one of the world’s biggest and most important car markets. And the M-Class luxury 4x4 – the car for which that Tuscaloosa plant was built – is entering its third model cycle.

The ML has reached 1.2 million owners since 1997 and is hailed by its maker as the world’s most popular luxury 4x4. Having tested the water for the likes of the BMW X5, Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7, it’s a more important car than many acknowledge. But arguably more important still are the improvements that Mercedes has made to the M-Class over the generations.

Promising market-leading quality, safety, refinement and efficiency, the new ML seems almost unrecognisable from the rough and ready original. It has developed far beyond an initial early 1990s brief to replace the tough but antiquated Geländewagen and this time, for the first time, is offered with a four-cylinder diesel engine that promises to open up proper luxury SUV ownership to a wider audience.

Top 5 Sports SUVs

First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    2 May 2016
    There's lots of work yet to be done, but the Aston Martin DB11's hardware has been signed-off. To experience it, we've driven a prototype
  • First Drive
    1 May 2016
    If you like Minis, going quickly and basking in the sun, then you're in luck; we've driven Mini's new John Cooper Works Convertible on foreign roads
  • Lotus Elise Cup 250
    First Drive
    29 April 2016
    The fastest, most track-focused and most expensive Elise ever made. It's simple, raw and immersive
  • Porsche 911 Targa 4S
    First Drive
    27 April 2016
    Slick looks, open-top fun and 911 handling sound brilliant, but the Targa has historically trailed the Coupé. How does the new model fare on UK roads?
  • Jaguar F-Pace 2.0d
    First Drive
    26 April 2016
    Jaguar's debut SUV wowed us abroad, but does it still impress as much here on the UK's roads?