New models develop gradually from their predecessors - or at least some of them do. The Mercedes M-class is rather different. A greater step forward from its predecessor, the utilitarian G-Wagen, could hardly be imagined. In interior ambience and on-road ability, it's the difference between Grozny and Guildford.
Although interior quality was initially questionable, the M-class graduated into a credible Range Rover rival and until the launch of the BMW X5, represented the ultimate expression of 4x4 urban chic. More often seen clambering gamely up a kerb in the high street than up a mountain in the Peak District, the M-class is nevertheless a very capable vehicle both on-road and off. It's also a roomy and practical proposition for those willing to pay for the three pointed star.
Clever product placement brought the M-class to a global audience of millions in its role as Best Supporting Actor in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park follow up 'The Lost World'. The basis for the M-class is anything but prehistoric considering that the G-Wagen's underpinnings wouldn't look out of place behind glass in the Imperial War Museum. This car is produced in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and encountered similar superficial quality issues as BMW when they opened shop in Spartanburg, North Carolina. With later cars, these problems were largely ironed out, and a more European quality feel was engineered in.
The first model launched in the UK was the ML320, debuting in June 1998 with a relatively cheap sticker price of £34,445. This was followed four months later by the gutsy V8-powered ML430, which retailed for £42,465. There were no manual gearbox options available, although the five-speed automatic was the tried and trusted 'box used in the E and S-class cars. Whilst undoubtedly launching the M-class firmly into the premium 4x4 bracket, these prices significantly undercut equivalent specification Range Rover figures, with the ML320 retailing in the same ballpark as a top-end Jeep Grand Cherokee.
In 2000 range as a whole benefited from improved quality interiors and body coloured bumpers, and the ML270CDi was launched. This diesel M-class was partly in response to the success of rival diesel offerings, and at £28,840 undercuts its nearest Range Rover rival by £11,000. The behemoth ML55 AMG also bowed in as a pre-emptive strike against BMW's X5. Nevertheless, as the locals in Tuscaloosa know, when it comes to trucks there's no substitute for cubic inches: the diesel unit is a tad underpowered for the sort of imperious velocities an M-class should be able to generate to dispose of lesser road users.
2001 saw a further revision to the M-class. A more aggressive front end was instantly apparent with restyled lights and bumpers. It's inside that owners of older M-class models got slightly green-eyed. Like the A-class of the time, the centre console reflected the design seen in the S-class model, whilst the minor controls were smartened up with flashes of chrome and red detailing. Rear seat passengers were treated to their own ventilation controls and also got a pair of double cup holders. The ML430 was replaced at this stage by the ML500, a 292bhp monster designed to spike the guns of BMW's X5. An all new M-Class hit the streets in 2005.