In fall 1997, the introduction of the M-Class was significant for several reasons: it was the first SUV from that company to be built and sold in the U.S.; the first of any midsize SUV to have a fully independent suspension, leading the trend toward more carlike trucks; and it was the first German luxury SUV. In the time since, the M-Class has held onto relatively strong sales, even in the face of tough competition from BMW, Porsche, and Land Rover. In response, Mercedes unveiled its next-gen SUV at the Detroit auto show earlier this year. The vehicle is now nearly six inches longer and three inches wider, on a 3.7-inch-longer wheelbase. And it's even more carlike. To improve on-road performance, the conventional ladder frame has been replaced by a unibody chassis, with its suspension using a double-wishbone front and four-link rear.

However, Mercedes is quick to point out the M-Class can still tame difficult terrain and has a new permanent four-wheel-drive system and height-adjustable air suspension. Its four-wheel traction control includes hill-start assist and a hill-descent aid option. Even without the benefit of a frame, towing capacity remains at 5000 pounds.

While the engine options may sound the same--namely, ML350 and ML500--the 3.5-liter V-6 is an all-new four-valve engine with 36 more horsepower than its predecessor, bringing it to 268, and the returning 5.0-liter V-8 has been tweaked for 14 more horses and 14 more pound-feet of torque: 302 and 339 horsepower, respectively. Backing both is a new seven-speed automatic transmission (a first in any SUV) with Touch Shift manual control located behind the steering wheel. (It's likely a third engine will be added in the future--the ML320 CDI, powered by a 221-horsepower V-6 common-rail diesel engine, with 376 pound-feet of torque. This option could be part of the lineup as soon as 2007.)

Exterior body fenders are much more aggressive with sculpted shoulder lines. The lower, sleeker, and more assertive shape is a clear attempt by M-B to move away from the soft egg-like look of the first generation. On the inside, front-seat legroom expands by over two inches; rear-seat knee- and legroom are also up. The five-passenger vehicle offers a power liftgate and an electrically powered extendable cargo floor. Expect Mercedes to be aggressive when pricing the V-6 and V-8 models. We'll have more when they're available to drive.