Every so often, some non-automotive media outlet puts together a list of the “Most Important Cars.” Have you seen these lists? They always include the Model T, and the original Mini, and the Porsche 911, and the Ford Mustang. And I always eagerly read them, start to finish, until I get to the end and I discover that they’ve left off one of the most important cars of the last three decades: the 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I’m saying that the original Mercedes-Benz M-Class deserves to be on an “important cars” list with the Porsche 911 and the Ford Model T. And today, I’m going to prove that to you in my usual style: gross hyperbole. I will also include a small amount of factual information.
FACTUAL INFORMATION NUMBER ONE: The Mercedes ML320 was the very first modern luxury crossover.
Before we get into the reasons why the ML320 is so important, I think we should discuss exactly what it was and what it wasn’t. What it was was the very first luxury crossover, as we know and love them today, ever manufactured; a true testament to the forward-thinking design, engineering, and product planning staff at Mercedes-Benz; a real automotive pioneer in the world of vehicle creation and production. What it wasn’t was a mailbox.
Allow me to make my point: the Mercedes ML320 came out in the fall of 1997 for the 1998 model year, which means it predates every single other luxury crossover. It was the first luxury crossover designed entirely from the ground up. And it was the first legitimate luxury SUV built in North America, which is now agreed to be the location where you must build all luxury SUVs, so you can quickly ship them to America’s finest suburban realtors.
To my second point, the ML320 is very clearly not a mailbox. It is an SUV.
FACTUAL INFORMATION NUMBER THREE: The Mercedes ML320 started the most important trend in the automotive industry today.
Here on Jalopnik, we don’t think much about luxury SUVs. We like to talk about cars: fast cars, fun cars, sports cars, cars you can buy for the same price as desktop printers, used cars, manual transmission cars, etc. But if you step outside into the real world, you’ll quickly discover that luxury SUVs are everywhere. They’re on every corner. Everyone is driving them. They have permeated our society like urine smell during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
And we owe all that to the Mercedes-Benz ML320.
Now, I admit there were luxury SUVs before the Mercedes ML320. For instance: the Oldsmobile Bravada came out in 1991 — but it was little more than a rebadged Chevy Blazer they marketed to retired people who lived on dirt roads. There was the Land Rover Discovery and the Range Rover, which were expensive, trucky, and built with the durability of a sticky note. Toyota had the Land Cruiser, and its Lexus LX450 twin. And Acura had a rebadged version of the Isuzu Trooper called the SLX.
When the ML320 came out, this was the entire state of the luxury SUV market: two mediocre rebadged midsize SUVs, a Lexus and a Toyota that cost twice as much as everything else, and two Land Rovers that leaked like a watering can on its side. Nothing else existed. It was a sad, bleak time for those of us who wanted to sit above everyone else and have our butts warmed.
Now, a lot of people like to claim that the Lexus RX300 was actually the very first luxury crossover – and I admit, it was there very early in the game. But here’s the thing: the original RX300 was built in Japan, not North America. The original RX300 wasn’t a ground-up Lexus product, as it had a Toyota twin called the Harrier. And most importantly, the original RX300 didn’t come out until the 1999 model year, which was a year after the ML320 went on sale. In effect, saying that the RX300 “kicked off” the luxury crossover segment is like giving Apple credit for “kicking off” the telephone.
FACTUAL INFORMATION NUMBER SIX: The Mercedes ML320 saved Vince Vaughn from being eaten by a dinosaur.
I still remember the very first time I ever laid eyes on the Mercedes ML320. I was in the fifth grade, and the ML was in the latest Jurassic Park film. I was so transfixed by the Jurassic Park ML320 that – this is a true story – years later, whenever I would go on business trips to Stuttgart with Porsche, I would arrive in the airport on the Porsche-provided flight with my Porsche-provided laptop and my Porsche-provided notepads, I would hop into the Porsche-provided rental car, and I would drive straight past the Porsche-provided hotel and the Porsche factory, and I would go right to the Mercedes-Benz museum, where they have one of the Jurassic Park ML320s on display.
So anyway, here’s what happened in the movie.
(Author’s Note: This section contains [SPOILERS]. For example, spoiler number one: if you complain about plot spoilers for an 18-year-old movie, then you are an idiot. However, there is a silver lining: I do own the film on VHS, and you are welcome to borrow it anytime.)
A group of people goes to the Island With All The Dinosaurs to hang out with the dinosaurs for reasons that are completely lost on me now. Possibly they are planning a surprise party for stegosaurus. So they bring a huge trailer and also a couple of ML320s, and eventually the tyrannosaurus gets mad at them and destroys one of the ML320s. Then the trailer goes off a cliff, but they use the ML320 to save all of the people inside it from certain death. After a while, some dinosaur eats the guy from The West Wing.
Then eventually the tyrannosaurus gets loose in San Diego and he eats at least one residential dog and a guy at a Blockbuster. I have no idea how the film ends, because my VHS copy cuts off when Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore are cruising around San Diego in a Pontiac LeMans convertible with a baby tyrannosaurs in the backseat (this actually happens), but I am told it is very thrilling.
Of course, those of us who have spent any time around an early ML320 know the vehicle couldn’t have possibly done any of these things, because it would’ve broken down before they ever got on the island. This is because the ML320 was manufactured in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, by factory workers who would occasionally get in shouting matches about college football while the assembly line was moving, and they’d forget to put on a steering wheel.
But here’s the thing about pioneers: they’re often not that great. The first cell phone, for instance, was a seminal design — but it wasn’t what we would call “great” by modern standards. Instead, it was refined over the years to what we have today. The first computer, the first plane, the first e-mail, the first silly putty. All not that great. All refined over the years. All major leaps forward for humankind.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of the original ML320: Not that great. But highly important. So the next time you see an early ML320 with those gray bumpers, flash it a smile. Give it a pat on the tailgate. But not too hard, because some weatherstripping will probably fall off.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.