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The original Mercedes-Benz M-Class gave the automaker its foothold in the SUV market and in America. Legally branded the ML-Class, to avoid problems with BMW and Infiniti, the M-Class was the first vehicle to come from the company's Alabama factory back in 1998. More than a decade later, the ML-Class is in its final years of the current body style, but it's still among the most desirable utes in its class. Priced from about $47,000 up to more than $92,000, it's also the only SUV we know that's available with a choice of gas, diesel, or hybrid powertrains. Originally conceived as an Explorer/Grand Cherokee fighter, the M-Class' competition at its current price point comes from all continents. The challengers include the BMW X5, the Infiniti FX, the Volkswagen Touareg, the Porsche Cayenne, and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The current M-Class bowed in 2006, and it's still fresh and attractive today-with far more visual staying power than the first-generation model. Semi-circular fenders and the long arc of the roofline mash up with an arrow-straight shoulder line and crosshatched grilles. The floating glass around the cargo area is wedged between a sloping roofline and an upturned rear fascia. It's jumpy and almost quirky, but the M-Class look works. It's mated with a more conventional cabin: Oval air vents are embossed on a dash that's very similar to that in the smartly styled GL-Class (they're mechanically related, and built alongside each other, too). You'll look into cut tubes to see big, white-on-black gauges-and maybe take a second to absorb the off-note touches of chrome on the steering wheel. Polished wood trim panels line the bottom of the center stack, the console, and the dash. Most "off-roaders" have grown prettier and more varnished, and the M-Class is, in that way, the biggest transformer of them all.