Mercedes watched the boom in the
4x4 market - especially in the USA, where some three
million sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were being sold
annually by the late-1990s.
The company did build an
off-roader, but the low-run G-Wagen (Gelandewagen)
was an uncompromising semi-military vehicle in the
mould of the Land Rover Defender.
The M-class, another part of Mercedes' dash for diversification,
was designed to enter the booming sector and to succeed
by addressing the problems inherent in the majority
of 44 designs.
Because most were tall vehicles based
on old-fashioned separate chassis technology, they
handled poorly, could be unrefined and in some circumstances
less safe in a crash than conventional monocoque-bodied
The M-class steered a middle course through the contradictions
of the 44 genre (they were designed for excellence
off-road, but used exclusively on-road) by being lower
and having a longer wheelbase than the norm.
it hadn't dispensed completely with a separate chassis
(the M-class used giant sub-frames front and rear),
Mercedes made sure the crash performance was up to
scratch. Space-efficient design meant room for a third
row of fold-down seats something the opposition couldn't
manage at the time.
Built in Mercedes' factory in Alabama in the USA, the
M-class was a huge hit right from the launch. The
Benz badge helped, but it was also a class above rivals
in that it combined the looks, utility and ruggedness
of a 4x4 with near car like levels of handling.
more surprising was the Mercedes' pricing, which managed
to undercut (with a few quality compromises) the opposition
- massively in the case of the Range Rover, previously
the unchallenged king of the offroad scene.