2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class and 2007 B-Class

Mark Bramley
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Mercedes-Benz, which was once famous for conservative sedans and not-very-sporty sports cars, now leads the industry in proliferation of premium products. If you need any evidence of product planning run amok, take the attention-grabbing R-class and the intriguing B-class, which go on sale here this fall (R) and early next year (B). Both cars are fruits of a complex common-components concept, with the B-class essentially a stretched, high-roof A-class and the R-class a dressed-up, six-seat M-class. By pooling existing drivetrains and suspensions with fresh sheetmetal, the Stuttgart strategists have created a pair of newcomers that don't need to sell in huge numbers to make a solid business case.

Let's fly in the R-class concept car first. Row one is First Class, with loads of legroom, plenty of headroom, bright leather, open-pore ash wood, and a brushed-metal center stack. Row two is Business Class, with two DVD monitors, fully adjustable seats, and individual heater and ventilation controls. Row three is Economy Plus-fair legroom, restricted headroom, and difficult access, especially when the middle seats are pushed all the way back. The first thing the driver notices is the column-mounted shifter. Later in the life cycle, its former home in the center console will accommodate the controller for the next-generation Comand system.

While the first show car sported a daring butterfly-door concept, the follow-up features conventional doors that are cheaper to make and offer better side-impact protection. Like the original M-class, the R incorporates tumble-and-stow rear seats that fold flat, creating a wide and deep cargo area. With all six seats up, the trunk space in the standard-wheelbase model shrinks to a token 7.1 cubic feet, but there's 63.6 cubic feet with the four rear seats folded down.

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The upper-class people mover is a big vehicle, with the footprint of an S-class. The standard-wheelbase (117.3-inch) model seen here is 193.7 inches long, and the super-sized version for the U.S. market is a whopping 203.1 inches long. Beneath the skin are Airmatic air suspension and 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive, the same hardware as in the next M-class (standard wheelbase) and the new G-class (long wheelbase). The show car has the latest 3.0-liter V-6 turbo-diesel that produces 215 hp and 376 lb-ft. Mated to the smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic, it kicks butt. Later, the V-6 will be joined by an even brawnier 310 hp, 4.0-liter V-8 twin-turbo CDI. Even on the tight Sindelfingen test track, the cushy ride, neatly suppressed body movements, and inspiring dynamic behavior are impressive. This maxi-van has plenty of good, old-fashioned silver arrow genes in its DNA. Other engine options should include the 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6; new 4.5- and 5.5-liter V-8s delivering 335 and 383 hp; and a normally aspirated 6.3-liter AMG power pack that summons an awesome 496 hp. We likely will see all these gasoline engines and the V-6 and V-8 turbo-diesels.

These one-offs are too lavishly trimmed to be indicative of the production models, but the packaging and ergonomics are correct. The R-class combines all the modern conveniences of the S-class with the packaging benefits of an outsize wagon and the high seating position of an SUV. The wrapping is spectacular; don't expect the 21-inch wheels to make it, but the striking shape will be virtually unaltered.

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