Vehicle: AA Vision
When: January 1996
Where: North American International Auto Show, Detroit
What: Sport-utility vehicle with high standards of ride comfort capable of satisfying demanding customer requirements
Electronically controlled four-wheel drive
Introduced 1997 in the M-Class (W 163) under the name 4ETS
Flexible interior configuration possibilities
Car phone with hands-free system and steering wheel control buttons
Mercedes-Benz’s choice of the Detroit Auto Show to present one of its concept vehicles in 1996 was quite deliberate. The vehicle in question was a sport-utility vehicle, and North America is the world's largest market for comfortable offroad vehicles. The company was confident that a sport-utility vehicle of its own could have a big impact. And it was an open secret that the AA Vision concept unveiled in Detroit would closely resemble the future M-Class, which subsequently went into production in 1997.
AA stood for ‘All Activity’ – a clear sign that this vehicle was intended for an extensive range of applications. The AA Vision was equal to any situation, be it on or off the road, in the town or in the country, in the sphere of work or in the sphere of leisure. The vehicle which emerged, designed by teams in Germany (Sindelfingen) and the USA (Irvine, California), parted company with previous sport-utilities. Whereas these were mostly derived from commercial vehicles, and therefore had relatively indifferent comfort and handling, Mercedes-Benz was well aware from its international market research that future customers were looking for something rather more sophisticated than this. And that was exactly what the AA Vision aimed to provide.
For one thing the AA Vision moved on from the classic two-box design of previous SUVs. Its integral styling was in line with the company's overall design philosophy – for one thing it was strikingly dynamic. The front-end treatment, with the raked headlamps and the prominent Mercedes-Benz star, was distinctive and cutting-edge while at the same time being recognizable as belonging to a Mercedes-Benz. At the same time the broad wheel arches gave the AA Vision a sturdy and rugged stance. The body was not only stylish however but also purposeful, for example the short front and rear overhangs translated into large angles of approach and departure in offroad operation. The aerodynamics too had been carefully honed, to reduce fuel consumption and wind noise.
The AA Vision catered for a full range of leisure requirements. For example it featured a roof rack system for carrying bicycles, surfboards or snowboards and a rear bumper with a retractable trailer hitch. Mounted on the tailgate was not only the spare wheel but also high-quality Bose loudspeakers which could be swivelled round for outdoor listening. The interior offered flexible configuration possibilities and generous carrying capacity for additional equipment and luggage. Two sunroofs provided a view through the roof and could be opened to admit fresh air, while a navigation system helped to keep drivers on course both offroad and in town. The phone could be controlled using the buttons on the steering wheel, and the microphone for the hands-free system was located in the sun visor.
Safety was up to the usual high Mercedes-Benz standards. The body was mounted on a rigid frame, providing protection for the occupants and at the same time ensuring crash compatibility with other vehicles. As well as two front airbags, the AA Vision was also equipped with two side airbags – something which could by no means be taken for granted at the time, in 1996. An anti-lock braking system (ABS) ensured safe braking, while the Electronic Stability Program ESPÒ kept the vehicle on the road in critical situations – subject to the laws of physics.
An innovation which made clear the AA Vision was a serious offroader was permanent four-wheel drive. The electronically controlled system identified any wheel or wheels which were losing grip and transferred their power to the other wheels, thereby maintaining optimal traction. Unlike many SUVs, the AA Vision had four-wheel independent suspension, giving excellent ride comfort.
After all, the AA Vision was also designed to be a comfortable and convenient vehicle in ordinary, everyday driving, be it on short or longer road journeys or just a trip to the shops. It was an all-round vehicle which Mercedes-Benz knew would set standards, since it went far beyond anything offered by conventional SUVs.
The AA Vision was a vision which had already progressed far down the road to reality. The very next year, in 1997, it went into production as the M-Class in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. More than two thirds of its components were built in North America, although its engines and transmissions came from Germany, making it a symbol of cooperation within a globally based company.