More stories related to 2005 NAIAS DETROIT – A new M-Class, making its world debut here at the North American International Auto Show, is part of a 4-model onslaught planned for Mercedes-Benz in 2005, its most ever.

“Never before have we introduced more new automobiles to our portfolio in a single year,” says Eckhard Cordes, the new head of DaimlerChrysler AG’s Mercedes division.

The M-Class debuts as a unibody cross/utility vehicle, having been a body-on-frame SUV since it debuted in the U.S. in 1997. It goes on sale this spring in the U.S. and this summer in Europe, Cordes says.

Hopefully, the pipeline will not have run dry by then, says Paul Halata, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. Inc. The outgoing model built out Dec. 9, and there aren’t many left, he tells Ward’s.

Mercedes M-Class

Halata says he expects the new car-like M-Class to significantly outsell the current model but declines to give volume projections. He expects to sell more than the 26,000 units in 2004, but nowhere near the high of about 50,000 in 2000.

About 620,000 units of the M-Class have been sold to date, Halata says.

The new M-Class will be sold in more than 100 markets.

The auto maker has invested $600 million to upgrade the Vance, AL, plant, where the M-Class is built, and will double the workforce to 4,000 by 2006.

As for the other products, Mercedes continues to tease with the Vision R as the latest sports tourer concept leading up to the production version of the GST, or R-Class as it has become known.

It also will be built in Vance later this year. A shorter-wheelbase version will be produced for export to Europe.

On a smaller scale, a compact sports tourer, or CST, dubbed the Vision B is slated for sale in Europe this year. It is supposed to come to the U.S., but it would be 2006 at the earliest, Halata says.

Meanwhile, Cordes uses his 100th day on the job as head of Mercedes to say his top priority is quality, something that has slipped at the premium brand. A second area of focus is the range of new engines on tap. (See related story: New Powertrains on Way for Mercedes)

apriddle@primediabusiness.com