More stories related to 2005 NAIAS Mercedes-Benz USA releases the first official photos of its much-anticipated all-new ’06 M-Class SUV.

The auto maker will debut the vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month, with sales starting in spring 2005.

Since hitting the market seven years ago, the M-Class has been one of Mercedes’ most important models. While sales of the SUV are down 12% through the first 11 months of the year to 23,223 units, the M-Class has sold 294,249 units since 1997, with its top sales year recorded in 2000 when 52,764 were sold, according to Ward’s data.

The ’06 M-Class features a more aerodynamic design, with sweeping front fenders and well-defined shoulder lines, as well as a sharply angled windshield. Overall dimensions have grown, with the new model slightly longer, wider and lower than the current M-Class, thanks to its new unibody platform, Mercedes says.

’06 Mercedes M-Class

“The new M-Class is entirely different,” says Paul Halata, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, speaking to journalists in Detroit. “It’s more like a car. No, it’s a car.”

Standard equipment on the new M-Class will include a 7-speed automatic transmission and improved full-time 4-wheel-drive system. Power will be provided via the standard 268-hp, 3.5L V-6 on the ML350 model or the optional 302-hp, 5.0L V-8 on the ML500.

The new interior features a driver-oriented cockpit with improved front legroom and rear passenger knee and legroom. A new active head-restraint system and height-adjustable Airmatic suspension also will be available.

The ’06 M-Class begins production at Mercedes’ Vance, AL, assembly plant in January.

kekelly@primediabusiness.com