DETROIT -- With three new SUVs on the market by the end of next year, Mercedes-Benz doesn't expect its redesigned 2006 M class to carry as heavy of a sales load as in its peak years.
The target is 30,000 to 40,000 units annually, says David Larsen, M-class product manager at Mercedes-Benz USA LLC. Larsen spoke at a media event near Detroit.
"Sales will be slightly less than the first generation because the second-generation M class will not be the jack of all trades like the first one," Larsen said. "We will have additional offerings in the SUV segment with the R class and a full-sized SUV."
Last year Mercedes sold 25,681 M-class vehicles in the United States, compared with 52,764 units in 2000, the model's best year.
Another factor likely to cut M-class sales is seating capacity: the current model seats seven with an optional third-row seat; the redesigned model will be capped at five.
Larson said only 15 percent of M-class buyers ordered the third-row seat.
Buyers needing a larger vehicle will be directed to the 2006 R class when that goes on sale this year. That vehicle is more wagonlike in design and seats six passengers.
The next step up in the Mercedes lineup will be the redesigned seven-passenger G class. Sales begin next year.
The 2006 M class is slightly larger than the 2005 version -- 6 inches longer and 3 inches wider, and the wheelbase has been stretched 4 inches. Two engines will be offered: a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and a 302-hp, 5.0-liter V-8.
Larsen said engineers and designers resolved the two biggest complaints cited by M-class owners: ride and the lack of convenient cupholders.
"In focus groups, they love the versatility, but it needed to have an improved ride. That's what we delivered with this (vehicle), a very car-like manner," he said.
Switching from a body-on-frame construction to a unibody design contributes to the improved ride, he said. The combination of unibody design and switching to a one-speed transfer case cuts 400 pounds in weight. That offers another benefit: a 10 percent improvement in fuel economy.
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