Here’s why I think Steven’s Spielberg’s box-office hit in 1997, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and its partnership with Mercedes, is largely responsible for why crossovers became popular in the United States.

You can’t have a conversation with anyone online about cars, in general, without bringing up the ubiquity of the modern crossover in our daily lives. But, why is the crossover so popular in American culture today and what was the opening salvo for a trend that defines our American landscape today?

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I think it’s a dinosaur movie, specifically Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Because of that single movie, the crossover vaulted from a wannabe SUV with car-like features into a serious alternative to the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Chevrolet Suburbans of the American suburban neighborhood. Jurassic Park: The Lost World transformed crossovers into American icons overnight and birthed the modern love for crossovers that we have today.

The modern crossover before the ML320 and Lexus RX

Before the modern crossover, as we know it today, hit the greater car market, regular SUV’s, such as the aforementioned Ford Explorer, Expedition, and Excursion including Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Tahoe, and Land Rover Ranger Rover saturated the American car culture landscape.

Arguably, the 1996 Toyota Rav 4, first launched in 1996 and its twin-rival the Honda CR-V, launched later the next year, were among the first crossovers to really set a foothold in the United States.

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Although both sold extremely well, true to their name, they were compact SUVs, nothing that the average middle-class American went to college, got a job, and saved up for. Both, surely could not, on a whim, dominate the greater outdoors like the truck-based SUV’s of the day could.

How Americans consumed media in the mid-90s

I think it’s important to bring up this point because, although the internet was just ramping up, becoming popular in the American household, by and large most Americans still got their daily information from print media and word of mouth.

Print media ruled when it came to automotive journalism of the time. Whatever was published in your local paper, subsequently you talked about it with your mates at the office the next Monday and throughout the work week.

According to Pew Research, in the mid-90’s, although this era marked the beginning of the end for the popularity of the newspaper, a large chunk of America still read the daily newspaper. In ’97, the daily newspaper had a national circulation of around 56 million, even more so just for the Sunday paper at 60 million.

I bring this up because print media is also where Americans got their car news from the local paper, car magazines, and television, which brings me to my next point.

How Mercedes beat out Ford hitting the press

In the middle of the Summer of 1996 word finally got out that Mercedes inked a deal with Universal Studios for an undisclosed amount (probably in the millions) that they’d be the supplier of cars for the upcoming sequel to the wildly successful 1993 Jurassic Park Movie.

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This pissed off Ford, no really.

According to the Birmingham News on June 28,1996 they published a news piece titled “Ford Smarting over Mercedes movie role.” Smarting, noun: “The fact or sensation of feeling a sharp stinging pain.”

As per Staff writer Stan Diel,

“Mercedes’ new four-wheel-drive won a marketing coup today and will replace the Ford Explorer as the dinosaur nut’s car of choice in the sequel to Jurassic Park.

The M-Class sport-utility vehicle, which will be built at Mercedes’ new Tuscaloosa County plant beginning early next year, will have a prominent role in The Lost World, said Linda Paulmeno, Mercedes spokeswoman.”

The arrangement is especially significant because Spielberg dumped the Toyota Land Cruiser, the vehicle that appeared in the original Crichton book, in favor of the Explorer in Jurassic Park because he wanted a car built by a U.S. company, according to a Ford product-placement official.

It’s also significant because the Explorer is expected to be one of the biggest competitors for the new Mercedes.

Mercedes likely will get a great deal of mileage out of the movie appearance. Ford used clips from Jurassic Park to show the Explorer at auto shows and sponsored the film’s premiere, buying two billboards and $5.2 million worth of advertising at the premiere alone.

To say this was huge for Mercedes would be an understatement. The article goes on to say that in the original Jurassic Park, Ford paid zilch to Universal, only supplying them with three water-damaged Ford Explorers and sold them several others. The hubris.

To any 90’s kid like me will remember, Jurassic Park in 1993 was huge! The first Jurassic Park is #31 of all time for Box Office Performance in North America grossing over $402 million. To get any sort of product placement in the next JP movie was a stroke of brilliance on Mercedes part and a slap in the face to Ford to rest on their laurels that way.

Anyways, this story hit the Associated Press and papers around the country started printing this story about a new “all-activity vehicle” from Mercedes scheduled to hit the movie screens approximately a year from then.

Can you imagine the hub-bub this created for Mercedes? What kind of vehicle was this SUV supposed to be? Mercedes has a G-class but surely this new SUV is not as expensive as that one? Is it like a Ford Explorer but only more fancy?

Jurassic Park: The Lost World box office hit and my first impressions watching that movie.

The Lost World finally hit the big screen on Memorial Day Weekend of 1997 and it was thee movie to watch that four-day weekend. According to Box Office mojo, over the span of four days, the greater United States was introduced to the ML320 Mercedes, for the first time, as it bound its way through the island of Isla Soma with their main purpose to study dinosaurs.

Americans, before then, had never seen such a vehicle from Mercedes before. With Ford Explorer-like proportions but with a front design language that was clearly Mercedes, it was a clash of automotive philosophies that really got the heart pumping.

Americans probably thought, “Are you telling me I can have all the off-road capabilities of a classic SUV but with the on-road comfort of a Mercedes?”

This M-class bounding across the screen had it all, and what a way to introduce it, running from dinosaurs.

These on-screen ML320’s were also quite ready for the task of off-roading with front bull bars, tow cables, winches, fog lights, and extra body cladding.

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I distinctly remember the impression those ML320’s left on me watching that movie and I reckon my feelings of awe and of want for something so…badass…where shared with thousands of Dads with money burning holes in their pockets in the market for a new family car.

The role this movie played, as a piece of adversiting, was cruicial. The movie was bereft with scenes where the ML320 was the star, wheels spinning in the mud, even in one scene, using its four-wheel drive to hold a full-sized RV from falling off a cliff.

This crossover from Mercedes wasn’t a mall crawler, although just a movie, “The Lost World” communicated that this crossover was a legitimate off-road machine that could do everything an SUV could and more.

The Lost World did more for the crossover than a dozen magazine articles and hundreds of news columns ever could.

Mercedes delivered

Three months after the ML320 made its on-screen debut, the M-class was available to buy from Mercedes dealerships.

The automotive press loved the ML320 when it came out. Although this Mercedes was built in Alabama, the Germans did their homework, making sure these Alabama assembly line employees delivered on quality and quality control.

Motor Trend loved it so much, they crowned it TOTY,

MT staffers were so amazed in the late fall of 1997, they named the ML the ’98 Truck of the Year. A few months later, MT took delivery of a silver ML320 for an up-close, long-term look. Instantly, it became an office favorite for chase-vehicle duty at remote photo shoots, kid-schlepping, cross-country hauls to remote camping sites, traversing swampy duck-hunting spots, and slipping around town to pick up big chunks of awkward cargo.

From there, the sales figures for the M-Class speak for themselves. According to, in the first four months that the Mercedes M-Class was on sale, Americans bought over 14,000 M-Class crossovers. In 1998, its first full fiscal year, Mercedes sold 43,134 M-Class’s. That figure rose until its peak in 2000, selling a whopping 52,764 M-Class’s.

By then, the modern crossover as we know and love hit mainstream and all the competitors came out of the woodworks to catch up. First, the Lexus RX was the first real competitor to the M-Class, for sale on January of 1998. Then came the BMW X5 in 1999 and the Volvo XC90 in 2002.

From their, non-luxury marquees came out with their versions of the mid-sized crossovers, evolving from year to year, gaining in popularity to today.

The crossover really came full-circle in 2011 when the Explorer, once with a body-on-frame since 1990, switched to a unibody chassis.

Just a really good product or the product of Hollywood making or breaking it.

For the mid-90’s, it’s both, the ability to make a good product and shape its image on the big-screen. Cars and movies go together like peanut butter and jelly.

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It’s why the James Bond franchise and BMW partnered up with Goldeneye and beyond.

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For a German company to introduce itself to Americans in one of the most American ways possibly, on a Universal Picture, was a match made in heaven. This German crossover became more real and Americanized in the process and is why I hold, this Jurassic Park: The Lost World cemented the popularity of the crossover for time immemorial as a vehicle that can do it all, no truck frame needed.

What do you think about the ML320 and how it shaped modern crossover culture? Do you agree with my assessment? Let me know in the comments below.


  1. Great article! The first generation ML actually did have a body-on-frame or “truck frame” construction. It also included permanent four wheel drive, a sophisticated 4×4 electronic traction system (ETS) and low range transfer case. Hence an impressively capable vehicle (which is why we still drive one after 20 years).


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