Preview: 2006 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

Mercedes brings a new family online in Alabama

Mercedes-Benz has released these first pictures of the new 2006 M-Class sport-ute, due to be shown at the Detroit auto show in January.

According to a release, the new M-Class sits 5.9 inches longer, 2.8 inches wider and 0.4 inches lower on the road than the first-generation vehicle, with a 114-inch wheelbase that's 3.7 inches longer than before. The new M-Class switches from a body-on-frame design to a unibody platform - more like the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Benz's new seven-speed automatic transmission is standard, as is full-time four-wheel drive. A height-adjustable AIRMATIC air suspension is option. A revised four-wheel traction control system now incorporates functions such as a downhill driving aid and Hill-Start Assist.

As expected, the new M-Class offers up two engines at launch. The ML350 is powered by an all-new 3.5-liter, four-valve-per-cylinder V-6 engine delivering 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The ML 500 sports the Benz 5.0-liter V-8 engine with 302 horsepower and 339 lb-ft of torque.

Major improvements to the M-Class' interior have been made, according to Mercedes, with richer materials, a more sporting instrument panel, and more interior room for all five passengers. The new M adds more than two inches of additional front leg room, and rear-passenger knee and leg room have also been increased by 1.4 inches and 1.3-inches. Front, side and side curtain airbags are standard.

The M-Class will be built at the Mercedes-Benz factory near Tuscaloosa, Ala. A seven-passenger version of the same architecture, possibly badged as the new G-Class, is expected in a year. The crossover R-Class, based on the same architecture, is also expected within the year.