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Drum roll, please. An all-new entry into the ever-expanding sport-utility vehicle market is now rolling onto the tarmac of America. With more than 40 models being presented by some two dozen makers, the news might seem a rather small splash in such a big pond. The first Mercedes-Benz SUV, however, is a big splash that is sure to cause ripples and rock the boats of many manufacturers vying for sales in this segment. After all, the SUV market has been one of the most rapidly growing arenas in the overall automobile market in the United States for a number of years, and it’s clear that the end isn’t in sight. More than 70 percent of the world’s SUV sales are currently in the U.S. market.
Already rumored to be sold out for '98, the M-class "all-activity vehicle," the ML 320, is a "clean-sheet design" that began as a vision four years ago for the German carmaker whose tristar badge, one of the most recognized in the world, is synonymous with luxury, performance, quality and safety. While the new sport-ute becomes the first four-wheel-drive passenger vehicle in the Mercedes lineup, and the first car it has produced on U.S. soil, Daimler-Benz AG has an offroad pedigree that dates back to its 4WD Unimog power tool and the rugged 4WD Gelandewagen. And, in fact, Mercedes-Benz first established an American plant in the 1980s in Hampton, Va., where MB trucks and Unimogs were built.
"The M class is not sold out," corrected Stuart Schorr, regional communications manager for Mercedes-Benz, admitting, however, that customers could face a wait. "We’re doing everything we can to get more from the factory," Schorr offered, referring to the new assembly plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which will produce 65,000 of the vehicles. "About 35,000 will be available in the U.S. market, and if customers can be flexible, that should minimize the wait," Schorr said.