2018 is a big year for the large family Mercedes-Benz SUV.
It’s celebrating its 20th year on the market. The current GLE's predecessor, the M-Class, reached showrooms in time for the 1998 model year. It stood out as the first car the firm made in America and it quickly became one of its most popular models.
We’re expecting to see a brand-new GLE before the year is out. While we wait, we’re looking back at some of the highlights of the model’s production run.
The mysterious Mitsubishi connection (1993)
Years ago, rumors indicated Mercedes-Benz began developing the successor to the G-Class in the early 1990s as part of a joint project with Mitsubishi that later got canceled. The report suggested the M and the Montero (also known as Pajero and Shogun in some markets) should have shared, if not sheet metal, then at least a few mechanical components.
The German firm’s archives department told Autocar it has no information about the partnership, though it noted the M-Class project began in 1993.
Mercedes moves to Alabama (1993)
Mercedes decided to build its first American factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in September 1993 and it held a ground-breaking ceremony in May 1994. Early on, officials decided the Alabama plant would build the M-Class. The decision made sense; the firm already expected the US would become one of its SUV’s biggest markets by a long shot.
The AAVision concept (1996)
The All-Activity Vehicle (AAVision) turned heads when it broke cover at the 1996 Detroit auto show. It was a completely new type of Mercedes, one that placed an equal emphasis on luxury, on-road comfort and off-road capacity. In hindsight, its front end accurately previewed the then-upcoming M-Class. The rest of the body went in a sleeker, more futuristic direction characterized by bulging wheel arch extensions and a more rounded silhouette than the production model.
Mercedes’ AAVision made its European debut at the 1996 Geneva auto show. The brand also floated the M-Class name for the first time during the event.
Discovering the chassis (1997)
By 1997, it became clear Mercedes didn’t build the AAVision concept just for fun. The brand returned to the Detroit show that year to introduce the chassis that would underpin the M-Class. Show-goers also got a look at the permanent all-wheel drive system and the new 3.2-liter V6 engine designed to gradually replace the venerable straight-six across the entire Mercedes line-up.
An SUV built for the mainstream with V6 power; clearly, Mercedes planned massive changes for the end of the 1990s.
The original M-Class (1997)
Mercedes formally introduced the original M-Class (named W163 internally) on 21 May 1997. The firm bypassed the traditional auto show circuit and instead invited nearly 5000 guests (including the governor of Alabama) from all over the world to discover the model in its newly-opened Tuscaloosa factory. M-Class production started the very same day. The model became an instant hit.
Rumors claiming the M was sold out for 1998 quickly emerged in the media. Though Mercedes called the reports unfounded, it admitted early adopters might need to wait. The facility could make 65,000 cars a year but the brand could only allocate about 35,000 of those to the American market. Production for Europe took place at Magna Steyr in Austria between 1999 and 2002, before all M-Class production was centralised in Alabama.
The original M-Class, by the numbers (1997)
The line-up initially included a single model named ML 320. Back when Mercedes’ naming system made perfect sense, the ML 320 nameplate denoted the presence of a 3.2-liter V6 engine under the hood. It was Mercedes’ first-ever V6 and it sent 215hp to the four wheels through an electronically-controlled five-speed automatic transmission. Pricing started at $33,950 (about $51,800 today).
M or ML? (1997)
Officially, Mercedes called its new SUV the M-Class. However, the emblem on the hatch read ML 320, not M 320. The company told us it chose to add the letter L to the name to avoid confusion with high-performance members of the BMW family.
The M becomes a movie star (1997)
The M-class played a prominent role in the 1997 Jurassic Park sequel movie The Lost World. The list of modifications made to the off-roader included a Hollywood-specific front bumper with a winch and an integrated bull bar, additional lights, protective metal bars over the windows and beefier tires. The studio unintentionally previewed the X-Class when it chopped up one of the SUVs into a pickup.
The first V8-powered M (1998)
Mercedes expanded the M-Class line-up by launching the ML 430 in 1998. Power came from the E-Class’ 4.3-liter engine, a state-of-the-art unit with three-valve technology and dual ignition. It provided 270hp. The 430 became the top-of-the-line model – but not for long.
The ML 430 turned into the ML 500 (pictured) when Mercedes gave the entire M-Class family a mid-cycle update in 2001.
AMG’s first M (1999)
The true range-topping M-Class arrived in time for the start of the 2000 model year. Engineered by AMG, the ML 55 received a 5.4-liter V8 rated at 342hp. The driver could let the five-speed automatic transmission shift itself or change gears manually with the TouchShift feature. Mercedes quoted a 0-60mph time of 6.3sec and a top speed of 144mph.
Visually, the ML 55 stood out from the 430 and 320 models thanks to a model-specific body kit. The sheet metal also hid comprehensive chassis modifications made to ensure the SUV could safely handle a turn, not just go fast in a straight line. AMG had transformed the M into a true performance car with a price tag to match. The 55 started at $64,900 (about $94,000 today).
1999 also brought a diesel-powered variant named ML 270 CDI, destined mainly for Europe - Mercedes never sold it in America.
The second-generation M-Class (2005)
Mercedes sold about 600,000 examples of the first-generation M-Class around the world. It far exceeded expectations and it spurred several competitors, including the original BMW X5. Its replacement had a lot to live up to. It made its debut at the 2005 Detroit auto show.
Named W164 internally, the second-generation model remained recognizable as an M-Class but it received a sharper, more aerodynamic design. The line-up again included six- and eight-cylinder variants.
AMG cranks it up (2005)
AMG wasted no time turning the second-generation M into a hot rod; it also had new rivals to fend off, including a tempestuous one designed across town by Porsche. Introduced at the 2005 Frankfurt auto show, the ML 63 took performance to unprecedented heights with a 6.3-liter V8 packing 510hp.
Alabama’s millionth (2007)
The Alabama factory built only the M-Class until Mercedes released the R-Class in 2005 and the GL a year later. The facility produced its one millionth car in November 2007, a little over 10 years after it started production. The milestone car (not pictured) was, appropriately, an M-Class.
The M goes hybrid (2010)
Named ML 450 Hybrid, the first gasoline-electric M-Class arrived in late 2009 as a 2010 model. The powertrain consisted of a 275hp V6 that worked with a pair of electric motors to deliver 335hp to the four wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The Hybrid returned better fuel economy than the non-electrified model. Mercedes also promised electric-only driving at speeds of up to 34mph. It was a lease-only model largely overshadowed by the ML 350 BlueTec, which used a turbodiesel engine to deliver similar gas mileage and a more engaging driving experience. This time, Mercedes sold the diesel in America.
The third-generation M-Class (2011)
Mercedes launched the third-generation M-Class (called W166 internally) in a booming SUV segment. Partly developed by DaimlerChrysler - the so-called marriage made in heaven dissolved in 2007 - the off-roader shared its basic platform with the fourth installment of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the third Dodge Durango.
Again, Mercedes played it safe in the design department and retained the distinctive C-pillar that characterized the model since the beginning. From late 2012, production of the model started at new factories in India and Indonesia, in addition to the existing output in the US.
The hottest M yet (2011)
AMG launched the hottest M yet in late 2011. Still named ML 63, it downsized to a 5.5-liter V8 that summoned the boost of two turbochargers to generate 525hp in its most basic state of tune. An optional AMG Performance package bumped that figure to a stout 557hp.
The ML 63 came with an air suspension and, for the first time, Mercedes’ Active Curve System. The technology used active anti-roll bars on both ends to keep body lean in check under hard cornering.
The papal M (2012)
Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche personally presented Pope Francis with a heavily-modified M-Class in July 2013. It was the latest in a long line of Mercedes-branded Popemobiles that started in 1930 when Pope Pius XI received a Nürburg 460 Pullman. The G-Class and the first-generation M also performed Popemobile duty.
The GLE Coupe
Mercedes’ answer to the BMW X6 finally arrived in late 2014. Called GLE Coupe, it followed the same formula at its Munich-born rival. It stood out with a form-over-function design characterized by a fastback-like roof line that peaked above the driver and gently swept down towards the rear end. The GLE name signaled some of the changes Mercedes had in store for its popular SUV.
The M becomes the GLE (2015)
At the time of the third generation model's mid-life facelift in 2015, the M-Class became the GLE. The new name reflected its positioning as the E-Class of the firm’s growing SUV family. Visual tweaks, updated tech features and powertrain changes made to boost both performance and efficiency accompanied the GLE nameplate.
Mercedes notably launched the first-ever plug-in hybrid variant of the M-turned-GLE. Its 442hp drivetrain offered Toyota Prius-like levels of emissions and nearly 20 miles of electric-only range without sacrificing performance. Over at AMG, which by that point had morphed into a full-fledged sub-brand named Mercedes-AMG, the GLE made up to 585hp.
What’s next? (2018 and beyond)
We expect Mercedes will introduce the second-generation GLE (so the fourth-generation M-Class) before the end of the year. We haven’t seen it yet but recent Autocar spy shots (above) indicate designers will take the SUV in a more streamlined direction. The changes include evolutionary tweaks to the front end, a more rakish roof line and vertical tail lights inspired by the ones on the GLC, among other models. This could be the model’s biggest redesign yet.