AAVision in January 1996: The beginning of the success story of the Mercedes-Benz SUV 25 years ago
- The study provided a close-to-production preview of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class that was launched in 1997
- Since 2015, the model family has been called the GLE-Class
- Production is at the plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (USA)
Stuttgart. With the AAVision, Mercedes-Benz opened up a new chapter in its successful strategic product initiative in January 1996: the concept car was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Twenty-five years ago, this car pointed in the direction that would be taken a good year later when the M-Class (W 163) went into production. In May 1997, the M-Class marked the brand’s successful entry into the sport utility vehicle (SUV) segment. Since autumn 2015, the model family has been called the GLE, which clearly assigns the successful SUV to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Since the market launch of the M-Class in 1997, more than two million customers have opted for this off-road vehicle. This makes the GLE the best-selling SUV in the history of Mercedes-Benz.
Another off-road vehicle made by the brand
When the AAVision was presented 25 years ago, Mercedes-Benz was in the middle of a strategic product initiative: new series were being added to expand the brand’s product range still further. These included the A-Class (W 168, 1997) and the compact SLK Roadster (R 170, 1996). With this expanded product range, the brand laid the foundations for a successful start to the new millennium.
The G-Class is the cornerstone of off-road vehicles and a hard-and-fast Mercedes-Benz item. It has been built 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 sports and recreation that were technically closely related to passenger cars. The key aspects of this vehicle concept were defined in 1993 and, three years later, the AAVision study at near-production level was unveiled at the NAIAS in Detroit. The name of this concept car was a direct reference to the segment of “all activity vehicles” (AAVs), which later became known as “sport utility vehicles” (SUVs) in North America during the 1980s. Since the 1990s, the SUV category has been successful worldwide.
The European premiere of the AAVision took place two months after the NAIAS at the Geneva Motor Show. It was on that occasion that the “M-Class” vehicle designation was applied for the first time, and that was the name used when the car became a member of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car family. Tremendous effort was concentrated on the new vehicle so that, one year after the world premiere of the AAVision, the public was given a sneak preview of the technology of the M-Class, again in Detroit in January 1997. Key components were presented: the chassis, drivetrain with intelligent all-wheel drive and the newly developed 3.2-litre V6 engine.
In May 1997, the W 163 model series Mercedes-Benz M-Class was presented to the world’s public. This off-road-capable SUV combined the best of the passenger car and cross-country vehicle worlds: all-wheel drive, high ground clearance and generous interior space are important attributes of classic off-road vehicles. The package was enhanced by excellent ride comfort even at top on-road speeds, a highly variable vehicle 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 car featured independent wheel suspension at front and rear. 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 optimised the handling safety and stability of the M-Class, both on and off the road.
Production in the USA
The M-Class had its début at the new Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (USA). The decision to establish that site had been taken as far back as 1993. It was the brand’s first production plant for a new passenger car outside Germany and the first production site in the United States of America. Construction of the plant began in 1995. Production of the M-Class – at first only the ML 320 model – commenced in February 1997. The model range was later extended through to the top-of-the-range ML 55 AMG with 255 kW (347 hp).
With its sporty but comfortable M-Class, Mercedes-Benz quickly took the lead position in the worldwide success of SUVs and the demand for the new model series was correspondingly lively. Consequently, from 1999 to 2002 – in addition to production at the Tuscaloosa plant – the W 163 was manufactured at the Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG plant in Graz, Austria, where the G-Class had already been produced since its inception.
The Tuscaloosa site was continuously expanded over time. Today, this Mercedes-Benz plant produces the GLE, GLE Coupé and GLS SUV model series for the world market and the C-Class saloon for the North American market. In establishing the plant here, Mercedes-Benz Cars made a decisive contribution to the development of Alabama as a location for the automotive industry and supplier network. As a result of the Mercedes-Benz plant, automotive suppliers, other OEMs and other supporting companies have settled in the state. Today, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) is the second largest car exporter in the USA. Since the start of production at the Tuscaloosa plant, more than 3.2 million vehicles have been produced.