The next-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV is 5.9 inches longer, 2.8 inches wider and 0.4 inches lower to the road than its predecessor.

Its aerodynamic exterior design includes an aggressive wedge shape, sweeping front fenders, sleek shoulder lines and an angular windshield. The interior is completely redesigned, too.

But it's the car-like ride characteristics that Mercedes-Benz USA President Paul Halata touts the most while speaking to journalists in Detroit.

“The new M-Class is entirely different,” he says. “It's more like a car. No, it's a car.”

Credit for that goes to a new unibody platform as well as a redesigned suspension.

When the M-Class first debuted seven years ago, it started a trend that inspired the industry to shift toward more car-like SUVs, say Mercedes executives. Virtually the only SUV at the time with four-wheel independent suspension, the original M-Class was one of the first to be designed from the ground up, rather than being based on an existing platform.

Halata notes that much of the auto industry's growth is in the SUV segment. He says the '06 M-Class shows Mercedes-Benz's determination to play there.

But M-Class sales have fallen, from 39,600 units and a 1.3% segment share in 2002 to 30,018 u nits and a 1% share in 2003. Final 2004 sales were on a course to be about 10% less than 2003. Nearly 300,000 have been sold since 1997, according to Ward's data.

The '06 model debuts this month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Dealers start selling it in the spring.