Evolution of the Mercedes-Benz SUV

Richard Simonds & Gary Anderson

_SUV 10 2016 GLE550.jpgThe fifth in an ongoing series of reference guides tracing the development
of the current Mercedes-Benz product range by model and chassis number


The evolution of sport-utility vehicles at Mercedes-Benz might be characterized as a succession of excellent but unintended consequences: The trail that leads up to the current group of five SUV classes – G, GLS, GLE, GLC and GLA, each with two body styles and several power trains available and each a leader in its market segment, is fascinating. At almost every juncture, decisions made in pursuit of one strategy led to a different and even more desirable outcome.


The beginnings of all-terrain vehicles

The history of the modern Mercedes-Benz all-terrain vehicle’s development didn’t begin with all-wheel drive or the consumer market in mind. Instead, it began with Daimler-Benz developing off-road vehicles for military applications. The first vehicle was developed under contract with the Imperial German Army immediately after the Daimler and Benz merger in 1926.

Though the vehicle was never put into production, the 3-axle, 10-wheel vehicle on a chassis – coded W103 – did leave its mark: It was called the G1, short for Geländewagen, the German translation for a cross-country or all-terrain vehicle. The company would continue to use that initial “G” to the present day to denote SUVs.

Development of all-terrain vehicles for military use continued intermittently through the 1930s and then accelerated during World War II. Only after the war did the idea of all-wheel drive enter the development program, and then just for agricultural and fire-fighting use, resulting in the Unimog. This vehicle with its permanent all-wheel drive was originated by an independent company that Mercedes-Benz acquired in 1951. Development of the Unimog for agricultural purposes, as well as for military and fire-fighting use, offered the opportunity to make improvements in all-terrain suspensions as well as in power distribution to multiple axles and wheels.


1972-1989 Geländewagen

The next chapter of the story involves the design of a consumer SUV originally intended to be a limited-production vehicle for all-terrain transport for military personnel. The thread began in 1972.

At that time, the immensely wealthy Shah of Iran – Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – owned a substantial share of Daimler-Benz and, consequently, a seat on the company’s board. He wanted a German supplier for small vehicles for his military and security forces  rather than vehicles produced from English, American or Japanese manufacturers. With the promise of substantial orders, he convinced the board to undertake development of a vehicle that would be comparable to the Land Rover, ubiquitous in most European military forces, and used as well by the United Nations and civilian scientific research programs: He wanted it to have off-road capabilities equal to the Land Rover, but be as safe and comfortable as any Mercedes-Benz automobile.

Because the company didn’t have excess production capacity, Mercedes-Benz took responsibility for design and development while partially owned subsidiary military vehicle manufacturer Steyr-Daimler-Puch in Graz, Austria, would be responsible for prototyping and production. By 1974, the first drivable prototype was ready for testing in regions from the Sahara Desert to the Arctic Circle and a variety of terrain surfaces in the German coalfields. And by 1979, production was ready to begin.

Unfortunately for the Shah, his wealth and influence began to diminish with rising inflation in Iran after the 1973 oil embargo. The resulting economic and social problems led to his overthrow during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, coincidentally just when the vehicles he had requested were ready for production.

A quick rebranding was in order in hopes of recovering some of the development investment. The new Geländewagen was introduced as “an exclusive vehicle for free-time activities and for heavy use in industrial and commercial areas.” To the surprise of many, perhaps including Mercedes-Benz, this very rugged-looking but quite expensive new vehicle almost immediately found a willing market that appreciated its exclusivity and capabilities.

The original 460 G-series, focused primarily on those industrial and commercial areas, was austere and utilitarian. It had four engine and five body variants on two frame lengths and wheelbases. There was an open-top version on the short wheelbase/frame and a station wagon or a box-type truck on either the short or long wheelbase/frame. Engines were initially the tried-and-true 2.4-liter or 3.0-liter diesel or 2.3-liter or 2.8-liter gasoline engines from the W123-series sedans. The awesome off-road capabilities were straight out of the original military plans, with manually selected transfer case levels and manually locked wheel hubs. Over the 13-year production run, engine capabilities were updated periodically when improvements were made in the passenger-car engines.

1989-present: G-Wagens come to the U.S.

In response to consumer demand for more comfort, a fundamentally reworked model line was presented in September 1989 with the 463, although 460-series vehicles were still available to commercial buyers. Styling stayed with the boxy design, but the panel-van variant was discontinued, though buyers could still get the open-top, short-wheelbase model, along with two versions of the station wagon. Permanent all-wheel drive replaced the complicated power transfer mechanism with little loss of off-road abilities. In fall 1990, the 500GE with a V-8 engine joined the lineup.

A few of the early G-Wagens had made their way into North America via gray-market channels until 1987, when U.S. Customs and the Department of Transportation shut off “casual private imports.” Beginning in 1993, Europa International/Europa G.Wagen LLC in Santa Fe, New Mexico, began federalizing and importing the G-Wagens into the United States with the blessings of Mercedes-Benz, eventually accounting for 10 percent of sales worldwide.
With the G-Wagens coming into North America through formal channels, the naming conventions were changed to Mercedes-Benz sedan practices in 1993, with “G” indicating the class, followed by three digits for engine capacity, followed by the letter “E” for gasoline or “D” for diesel (primarily for commercial customers). A new G500 was launched in 1998 with more horsepower and considerably more standard equipment to appeal to the new U.S. customer.
In October 2001, Mercedes-Benz bought out its contract with Europa effective at the start of model year 2002, with the G-Class (as it was to be referred) henceforth to be sold through Mercedes-Benz dealers and Europa, still authorized to provide parts and service and sell pre-owned G-Wagens.

With the G-Wagen available through dealers, each year saw refinements in performance, comfort and convenience to match the S-Class sedans, making the G-Class the preferred vehicle of the “SUV elite.” Two models were available, the G500, upgraded to the G550 in MY2009, and the G55 AMG. The G-Class would continue to be produced with few changes, though with additional accessories with which customers could customize the interior and exterior of the vehicle in subsequent years.

In 2013, the first major changes in decades were made to the G-Class, focusing on interior and power train, with almost no changes to the exterior design. The G55 was replaced with the G63, equipped with a 5.5-liter biturbo V-8 engine, while the G550 maintained its standard engine. The instrument panel was changed substantially; the display screen was mounted in front of and above the fascia following the style of the new C-Class.


1997-2004: Birth of the M-Class MLs

By 1993, the growing popularity – and profitability – in North America of SUVs from other manufacturers and the immediate success of Europa’s sales of G-Wagens led Mercedes-Benz to begin planning for a substantial update of the G-Wagen, as well as announce plans for a production facility in Vance, Alabama, to supply the North American market where most of the demand was expected to be.

At Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January 1996, Mercedes-Benz revealed the AAVision concept vehicle – AAV for All-Activity Vehicle – with sleek lines and the promise of superb all-terrain ability. Industry rumor held that it would replace the G-Wagen, with assembly to end in Graz as soon as the Alabama plant came online.
A rapid groundswell of negative opinion immediately arose from G-Wagen owners and prospective buyers. In response, when the technology under the AAVision was revealed at the Detroit show one year later, it was announced that the production version would be called the M-Class. Production of the G-Wagen would continue as before on special order through Europa by Steyer-Puch in Graz .

The W163 chassis of the M-Class featured body-on-frame like the G-Class, but had a close-box section frame for collision safety with four-wheel independent suspension for a comfortable ride. The newly developed 3.2-liter V-6 engine with intelligent all-wheel drive, and 5-speed automatic transmission would provide only slightly compromised off-road capabilities compared with the G-Wagen. In May 1997, the new ML320 was shipped from the Alabama factory.

A more powerful ML430 with a V-8 engine was introduced in January 1998. Standard equipment included safety systems, collision protection, improved performance and handling, and customer comforts such as air-conditioning, seat-heating, automatic transmissions, power-assisted brakes and steering, and just about everything you could get in an E-Class sedan.
In January 1999, the ML received the World Car Award from automotive journalists across five continents for being the ideal global car because of “its unique combination of flexible utility, compelling value for money, exemplary safety, forward-looking design, and superb off-road capabilities in conjunction with the road-going qualities of a sedan.” Continuing evolution introduced diesel engines and an ML55 AMG model for the performance-oriented driver.

By 2001, the ML was due for a facelift; the new version had 1,100 completely new or modified components in the design, interior, technology, performance and handling for “more fun at the wheel.” By December 2002, the ML320 engine became the ML350. Because the ML is closely aligned with the E-Class sedans, nearly every safety or convenience feature on the sedan became available on the M-Class.


2005-2010: W164 second-generation ML

The second generation M-Class was introduced at the Detroit show in January 2005. The new W164 chassis was an integrated unibody – not the W163’s body-on-frame structure – which provided a quieter ride, quicker assembly, more interior space and much stronger torsional stiffness.

Newer engines (both diesel and gasoline), a 7-speed automatic transmission, and cutting-edge technologies applied from the luxury sedans made for an even more enjoyable experience for drivers and passengers. For those needing towing capability, a factory-fitted trailer coupling could enhance safety with the M-Class’s Electronic Stability Program that could sense trailer movement and help bring it under control for the driver.

A new ML63 AMG came on board in mid-2006 for the ultra-performance enthusiast. The suspension, brakes, and related driver-safety systems accompanied the more powerful engine. All ML models received the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 5-Star Safety Rating.

In 2009, the W164 M-Class received a facelift for MY2010; revised headlights, bumpers and grille and a restyled interior. The new ML420CDI offered a direct-injection diesel engine.
2011-2015: W166 third-generation ML

The third-generation ML – on the W166 chassis – was offered for model year 2011, with styling called “dramatic” in a package that was fractionally longer, lower and wider. Emphasizing fuel efficiency, the ML450 had a hybrid gasoline power train and the ML350 had a BlueTEC diesel engine, as well as the ML550 and ML63 vehicles with V-8 engines. Advertised as one of the safest SUVs in the industry, the M-Class included Blind Spot Assist to monitor vehicles in parallel lanes and an improved rear-view camera.

The hybrid-engined ML450 was quietly pulled from the marketplace in 2012 due to lackluster customer response, though power increased on the ML450 diesel and the ML350 4Matic was supplied with a new direct-injection V-6 engine. In 2014, the Collision Prevention Assist system was added to the long list of safety devices.
2016-present: GLE – same ability, new name

For 2016, the M-Class was thoroughly revised in what would have been a normal facelift on the continuing W166 chassis, but with a new name parallel to the SUV group’s renaming: All vehicle classes began with “G,” harkening back to the original Geländewagen’s all-terrain heritage, with the suffix the same as the equivalent sedan, the ML- or M-Class becoming the GLE-Class. In addition, the GLE Coupe, an alternative body style that still featured the same interior and power train options, was added to the lineup.

When the GLE was introduced, the big headliner was the AMG GLE Coupe variant – essentially the same model, but the rear roofline tapered down toward the taillights – though the press described it as an emulation of the BMW X6 crossover coupe. But that didn’t prevent Motor Trend magazine from declaring the GLE the 2016 SUV of the Year.


2006-2016: X164 GL-Class luxury SUVs

In January 2006, Mercedes-Benz chose the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to introduce the GL-Class,  which expanded its SUV lineup to counter U.S. manufacturers with their three-row, seven-passenger models. The GL was built on the X164 chassis, a stretched version of the W164 ML-Class and built on the same assembly line as the ML, and was positioned at the top of the luxury SUV market segment.

Imagine the most well-appointed S-Class sedan, add SUV capability, and you had the new GL-Class. Power choices included the GL320 CDI 4-Matic to GL500 4-Matic (diesel to gasoline) with the 7-speed automatic transmission. Every S-Class safety, driver, comfort and convenience feature was either standard or available on the GL.

For those who wanted to tow a trailer – perhaps a horse box or sailboat – the Electronic Stability Program Trailer Assist corrected situations before they became dangerous (within laws of physics’ limits). Airmatic suspension maintained the GLs’ level – regardless of passenger, cargo or trailer load – and provided an exceptionally comfortable ride quality. Off-roaders enjoyed the car’s downhill speed regulation, hill start assist and off-road ABS. The Off-Road Pro engineering package extended the capabilities of the GL in extreme terrain by incorporating a two-speed transfer case and 100-percent differential locks for the transfer case and rear axle.

For model-year 2011 and continuing through model-year 2016, when the ML-Class chassis and styling was changed to the W166 chassis, the GL-Class likewise changed to the stretched X166 chassis.

Continuous year-by-year improvements brought changes to engines, safety systems and interiors. Moreover, additional adjustments reduced environmental impact to meet and exceed customer expectations, as well as regulatory requirements. All of these reconfigurations matched equipment of the ML/GLE-Class and interior quality of the S-Class.


2010-2015: GLK compact sport utility

Two years after the introduction of the GL-Class – the largest Mercedes-Benz SUV – in 2008 the company added a model at the economical end of the lineup. Responding to the competitive pressures of growing success with the C-Class sedan and the expansion of other manufacturers into highly profitable small crossover SUVs built on sedan chassis, Mercedes-Benz introduced the GLK350, which made its debut in dealer showrooms in January 2009 as a 2010 model.

Interestingly, rather than referencing the C-Class with which it shared many chassis components, the new model followed the practice of the SLK, taking its name from the GL, but with the “K” suffix for “kurz,” German for “short.”

According to sales literature, the V-6-powered GLK350 showcased bold exterior design with sharp-edged lines, generous cargo capacity and available 4Matic all-wheel drive, offering the perfect balance of style, versatility and performance. The GLK-Class would be produced exclusively at Mercedes Benz’s Bremen, Germany, plant.
The GLK was updated in 2013 using the same chassis and suspension, but with a more powerful V-6 engine, the Eco Start/Stop system and a more fuel-efficient 7-speed transmission, responding to criticisms in the automotive press that the initial model was underpowered and thirsty. Making additional headlines, the updated GLK garnered raves for its safety features, including Attention Assist, Distronic Plus and Pre-Safe Brake, Active Blind Spot and Lane-Keeping Assist systems, as well as the optional Active Parking Assist. The MY2014 models were powered with diesel or gasoline engines, as well as offering either front or all-wheel drive capabilities.


2015-present: GLA – the baby of the family

All new for 2015 and built on the same front-drive chassis as the European A-Class hatchback and American CLA sedan, the GLA appealed to Americans’ desire for more space, cabin height and ride-height than either of the two donor models, with subtle links to the more masculine image of the SUVs. The new model was available in two variants;  the 208-horsepower GLA250 and the high-performance GLA45 AMG with a hand-built AMG engine producing an awesome 375 horsepower 4Matic all-wheel drive in that small chassis. The GLA should be essentially unchanged for at least the next four years.


2016-present: GLK restyled, renamed GLC

With the introduction of the W205 C-Class in 2014 for MY2015 – with its longer and wider chassis – it was obvious that the GLK built on the no-longer-produced W204 chassis was not long for this world. The surprise was when Mercedes-Benz product planners departed completely from the boxy design of the GLK, vaguely evocative of the G-Class granddaddy of the clan, with the introduction of the 2016 GLC. Renamed to follow the new M-B convention – GL for the SUV family and C for the corresponding sedan sibling – the vehicle had a “progressive design” with smooth lines and rounded edges that emulated the larger Mercedes-Benz SUVs.

During the Shanghai auto show in spring 2015, Mercedes-Benz offered a global preview of a coupe version of the GLC with a tapered rear roofline. It was officially launched in March of 2016 as a 2017 model.

The future

2015 was heralded by Mercedes-Benz as “The Year of the SUV.” By the end, there were five MY2016 model classes – GLA, GLC, GLE, GLS, and G-Wagen – plus two coupe variants, comprising a complete lineup with an SUV in every market segment. While we don’t expect any new models, we can expect that Mercedes-Benz will continue to maintain its market-leading edge in the SUV marketplace.