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.
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.
While the R-class will be built in Alabama, the B-class will roll off the same German assembly line as the A-class. At 168.1 inches long and 63 inches high, the five-door hatch belongs in the same size class as the European-market Volkswagen Touran, Renault Scnic, and Opel Zafira. But unlike these micro-minivans, which rarely show up without kiddie seats and a stroller in the trunk, this is more of a minivan for grown-ups. The B-class has too much back-seat space to waste it on toddlers. Rear legroom is truly generous, headroom abounds, and shoulder room is fine.
The sandwich-floor concept-whereby, in the event of an accident, the engine slides under the passengers into a space also occupied by the fuel tank-pays off because it is paired with a full-length, 109.5-inch wheelbase. As a result, the B feels notably bigger inside than its rivals. It also has a cavernous trunk that swallows between 18.5 and 58.3 cubic feet of luggage, depending on whether the second-row seats are up or down.
The nineteen-inch wheels and liquid steel paint job won't make it into production, but this clever package is compact and versatile, luxurious yet totally sensible. As with the A-class, the rear seats can be folded or removed easily. The one ingredient the B-class lacks is all-wheel drive (it's front-wheel-drive only).
The B-class makes do with four-cylinder engines, topped by a 187-hp, 2.0-liter turbo. The show car is fitted with the top-of-the-line 2.0-liter diesel. Complete with a particulate filter, it musters 138 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque at a lowly 1600 rpm. Mated to the continuously variable Autronic transmission, with a choice of seven stepped gear ratios, the sixteen-valve diesel re-turns an average of 47 mpg. Compared with the A-class, the longer and heavier B exhibits better straight-line stability, a more supple ride, and better roadholding.
The plan is to build 100,000 B-classes and 50,000 R-classes a year. The B will be the smallest Mercedes offered in the States, and it is unlikely to sell in high volumes, whereas it looks to be a smash hit in Europe. Mercedes is betting that the R-class will find most of its takers here, despite the less-than-stellar success of the essentially similar Chrysler Pacifica. Prices are expected to start in the mid-$50,000s range. The B-class is likely to undercut the C-class, starting in the mid-to-high-$20,000s.