On May 21, 1997, Mercedes-Benz presented the first generation of its M-Class at the Tuscaloosa plant in Alabama/USA, where the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) from the W 163 series was produced. One half of the cars completed here was destined for the US market, the other for the rest of the world. Since 2005, the second-generation M-Class (W 164) has been produced in Alabama, and the plant’s capacity was expanded to accommodate production of the R-Class (W 251) and, since 2006, of the GL-Class (X 164) as well. Tuscaloosa was the Mercedes-Benz brand’s first passenger car production plant outside Germany.
Decision in favor of America
Construction of a Mercedes-Benz plant in the USA – this decision was made by the then Daimler-Benz AG in 1993, and the project was completed between 1995 and 1997. Assembly of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars outside Germany had already been started way back in 1935, in Denmark, but production volumes had been small. The plant in Alabama was the first production location outside Germany where Mercedes-Benz passenger cars were produced for the entire world market.
The plant was built for an all-new car from Mercedes-Benz. In January 1996, the brand displayed the AA Vision at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. This design study already featured important elements of the M-Class and was elected “Best of Show“. The AA Vision made its European debut at the Geneva Motor Show a few weeks later. Here, Mercedes-Benz also announced the name of the future model series: M-Class. Its development was the responsibility of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (MBUSI) founded in 1994 and domiciled in Tuscaloosa.
The M-Class was launched at the Tuscaloosa plant on May 21, 1997. In the presence of 5,000 guests – among them Fob James, Governor of Alabama – the plant was officially inaugurated on this occasion. The new production location on 810,000 square meters of land had 93,000 square meters of roofed area and accommodated body-in-white assembly, paint shop, assembly, training center and customer center. Daimler-Benz invested over 300 million US-dollars in the plant; the development of the M-Class incurred costs of around 700 million US-dollars.
The new model was a major milestone in the Mercedes-Benz product drive: in 1997 the Stuttgart-based brand also launched the CLK and the A-Class. The highly comfortable M-Class, featuring a chassis with a separate box-section frame, was designed for both road and offroad operation. Auxiliary frames for the front and rear wheel suspension and ten rubber mounts dampened the transfer of road bumps and noise to the bodywork. Independent wheel suspension all round was a special feature of this chassis which was unique in this vehicle category.
The powertrain was specially designed for permanent four-wheel drive, with a modified variant of the electronic traction system, ETS, being used instead of conventional differential locks in the M-Class. The anti-lock braking system (ABS) was equally adapted to offroad operation. The result of this innovative vehicle concept was a car which combined the comfort and handling safety of a Mercedes-Benz passenger car with the all-terrain mobility and robustness of an offroader and the spaciousness and variability of a Sport Utility Vehicle.
Successful model: The M-Class
The enthusiasm for the new car was so great that Mercedes-Benz initially had difficulties in satisfying the demand. The new model was marketed in North America from September 1997 and in Europe from March 1998. The ML 320 with a V6 engine developing 218 hp (160 kW) was available throughout the world while the ML 230 with four-cylinder engine (150 hp/110 kW) was reserved for Europe. The top model was the ML 430 (270 hp/199 kW) launched in 1998 before AMG presented the ML 55 AMG with an output of 347 hp (255 kW) in 1999. In the same year, a diesel-engined version – the ML 270 CDI with a 163 hp (120 kW) five-cylinder in-line unit – made its debut and proved to be extremely successful, especially in Europe.
In 1999, Mercedes-Benz invested some 80 million US-dollars in the expansion of capacity in Tuscaloosa. The M-Class received the “World Car Award” – a distinction for the ideal car on a global scale. Numerous other awards followed. As early as 1999, some 100,000 units of this series had already been sold. In August 2000, DaimlerChrysler decided to invest more than 600 million US-dollars in the plant to raise annual production capacity to some 160,000 cars. Today, the M-Class is sold in 135 countries around the world.
After the model refinement in 2001, the ML 500 with an output of 292 hp (215 kW) replaced the ML 430, and a new top-of-the-line diesel model, the ML 400 CDI with a 250 hp (184 kW) V8 CDI engine, was launched onto the market. Production of the ML 230 was discontinued. Overall, more than 570,000 units of the first M-Class generation were built in Tuscaloosa. Between 1999 and 2002, another 77,100 M-Class units for the European market were produced at Magna Steyr in Graz/Austria.
The new M-Class
In 2005, the M-Class from the W 164 series replaced the first generation of this successful SUV in Tuscaloosa. The Sport Utility Vehicle comes in a decidedly sporty design with a flat windshield, distinctive fenders and an upward-sweeping shoulder line. The new model also boasts ultra-modern engineering, including the standard 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission which transfers engine power to the road via an even higher-performance 4MATIC four-wheel drive. AIRMATIC air suspension is equally included in the standard specifications while the PRE-SAFE® occupant protection system is optionally available.
R-Class and GL-Class
The expansion of the Tuscaloosa plant prepared the location for the production of the new M-Class, the Mercedes-Benz R-Class (since 2005) and the GL-Class (since 2006). The R-Class, a new Grand Sports Tourer from Mercedes-Benz, is based on the Vision GST presented in Detroit in 2002 as well as on the Vision GST II and Vision R of 2004. In 2006, a third series was added to the product range in Tuscaloosa: the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.
In the ten years since the official inauguration of the plant, the production location in Tuscaloosa has established itself with products of a high standard of quality. “Mercedes Quality – made in the USA” has become a trademark for the Mercedes-Benz cars from Alabama.
The plant also assumes social responsibility: in August 2005, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, in cooperation with the American Red Cross, offered emergency accommodation for victims of hurricane Katrina.
The relations between the old and the new world are also demonstrated by the fact that Tuscaloosa is the twin town of Schorndorf in Germany, where Gottlieb Daimler was born.