SAN ANTONIO, Texas – While these days it’s usually the introduction of a sleek-looking new electric vehicle, perhaps a reimagined American muscle car and guaranteed the arrival on the scene of a fresh-faced Toyota Hilux that draws the most attention on the roads around the CAR magazine offices, in October 1998 it was the pre-launch presence of a maroon-coloured Mercedes-Benz ML320 complete with a chrome nudge bar and matching tailgate-mounted spare wheel cover that all but stopped traffic. Indeed, while at the time models such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover Discovery already existed, the debut of a sport utility vehicle from one of the powerhouse German brands set the scene not only for this particular family of vehicles to eventually account for a third of its maker’s annual global sales, but also for the steady yet relentless influx of the myriad rival luxury raised ride height offerings we see today.

The sight at last week’s launch of the fourth-generation “ML” of the first M-Class that rolled off of Mercedes-Benz's custom built Alabama-based production facility drew both fold memories of that maroon test unit, but also reflection on just how far this segment has progressed over the past twenty years.

For starters, the original M-Class (named ML after BMW objected to the use of "M" badging) is now matched in terms of its dimensions by the brand’s second smallest modern SUV offering (the GLC), while there now exists two family members that offer even greater presence on the road than the original.

Rebadged as part of a broad naming restructure, the fourth-generation M-Class (dubbed GLE since 2015) shares its Modular High Architecture (MHA) platform with its forthcoming big brother GLS and boasts a number of under-the-skin revisions aimed at making it not only stronger but also more refined than ever before. As such, the new model is around 20 percent stiffer than the outgoing version while being around 60 kg lighter, depending on which drivetrain is fitted.

In a notable effort to make the new GLE as sleek as possible (more on that later), the design team returned to its roots somewhat by smoothing out as many of the often fussy lines (particularly in profile) that have crept into the moulding of these products over the years. As such, while the family familiar bonnet bulges and distinct M-Class angular C-pillar with a wrap-around rear window remains, the rest of the new GLE looks as though it was designed in a wind tunnel, such is the uncluttered cleanliness of its shape (before an optional AMG Line is added). Indeed, the combination of this fresh design, together with actual wind tunnel testing has gifted the new GLE a quite remarkable drag coefficient of just 0,29 Cd.

Such has been the brand's obsession with drag and its potentially negative impact on both efficiency and overall refinement that even the panoramic sunroof (when optioned) is designed to tilt within its housing for improved air flow according to the speed of the vehicle.

Combine this with impressive levels of perceived build quality as well as the optional acoustics package (including laminated windscreen) fitted to the vehicles made available on this international drive and the new GLE offers potentially the quietest cabin of any vehicle in this segment. So much so that even the sound made by the doors locking on pull-away has been optimised to better complement these newfound, class-leading levels of NVH.

Wider yet lower than the previous-generation GLE, the new car is also 105 mm longer with an 80 mm increase in wheelbase length. These new dimensions not only account for even greater levels of second-row comfort but also allow for the optional fitment of a third row of seats. With these extra seats neatly stowed, the new GLE also offers 135 litres more luggage space than before – prior to any (optional) electric adjustment of the second row bench being made. A heating function and dedicated climate control settings are also available for second-row occupants.

Up front, the standard fitment of the latest version of Benz's voice-activated MBUX infotainment system (including 40 new functions) is complemented by the crisp workings of a 12,3-inch touchscreen, a highly configurable digital instrument panel and the option of an impressive 45 x 15 cm heads-up display. Also offered is the brand's new Interior Assist package that uses artificial intelligence (and a clever camera system) to learn the habits and movements of the car’s owner. Here the driver can not only programme a series of hand gestures to shortcut favourite screens within, for example, the car’s navigation, but the system will also learn its owner’s habits to, say, pre-dial a phone number regularly used on a Tuesday morning.

So quiet is the cabin of the new GLE that it also potentially amplifies any roughness from outside of this environment. This in turn puts pressure on the range’s new entry-level (300d) four-cylinder turbodiesel to go about its nevertheless enthusiastic (180 kW/500 N.m) duties to the best of its otherwise refined abilities. While the hugely impressive 243 kW/700 N.m GLE400d will arrive in South Africa later in 2019, at launch the pick of the initial two-model range (including the 300d) is the new GLE450 with its turbocharged 3,0-litre inline six-cylinder petrol engine delivering 270 kW and 500 N.m of torque to all four wheels via a standard 9G-Tronic transmission.

These outputs increase further via the seamless inputs of a 48-volt EQ system that not only eases the burden on other electric systems within the car but can deliver an additional 250 N.m of torque on demand. Combined with the slick workings of Mercedes’ nine-speed automatic transmission, the GLE450 can either sprint from standstill to 100 km/h in just 5,7 seconds or maintain a steady cruise more attuned to achieving a claimed 9,4 L/100 km fuel consumption figure.

While the 4Matic system on the 300d is fixed to a 50:50 split front to rear, the electronically controlled multi-disc arrangement on the six-cylinder models is able to continuously shift torque (up to 100 percent) between the front and rear axles as required. Also available is an off-road package that adds both a low-range transfer ratio and a central diff lock, plus up to 90 mm worth of ground clearance to the (optioned) air suspension.

While steel springs are standard fitment in the GLE range, it’s the brand’s Airmatic air damper system that adds that much more refinement and sophistication to the SUV most closely related to the E-Class. Offering impressive compliance in comfort mode, this technology is able to firm and lower the GLE’s ride height by up to 25 mm in its maximum-attack sport+ setting, affording the not unsubstantial (2 220 kg) new GLE450 4Matic a level of adaptability and relative breadth of ability to suit most driving conditions.

While Mercedes-Benz touts its new E-Active body control (a fresh version of the Magic Body Control technology found in the S-Class) as the next advance in suspension management, this hydropneumatic system – able to monitor and individually regulate each damper separately – complements rather than drastically enhances an already impressive air-sprung ride quality. Indeed, a related new "curve" setting that tips the GLE into a corner (not unlike a motorcycle) with a view to lessening the forces acting on the car’s occupants feels at first (and second) like an unwelcome fairground ride and is more likely to land a spouse in hot water.

Having sampled the equally impressive new BMW X5 – also on US soil – only a few weeks before, it occurred to me after my time spent behind the wheel of the new Mercedes-Benz GLE that both brands seem to have used the occasion of the introduction of a new generation of the vehicle that launched each one’s SUV aspirations to return to their respective individual roots. That said, while the new X5 feels discernibly sportier and more agile compared with the new GLE, it’s the Mercedes that feels the more sophisticated and graceful of these two traditional rivals.

Either way, or whichever way you’re inclined to lean, it has to be said that the two German brands that led the way in terms of defining the modern SUV package have each raised the bar within this tightly contested, yet very significant segment.