Mercedes-Benz says that, with the R-class, it is launching a new class of vehicle and a new way for six adults to travel, neatly ignoring the fact that Chrysler-yes, their colleagues in Auburn Hills, Michigan-made similar claims for the Pacifica when it hit the market in 2003. Just like Chrysler, M-B calls its new vehicle a sports tourer, one that combines the versatility of a wagon, the go-anywhere-ness of an SUV, and the luxury and performance of a large sedan.
The R-class certainly looks the part. The long-wheelbase R350 and R500 are humongous, longer even than a Cadillac Escalade. (A shorter-wheelbase version will be sold only in Europe.) At first glance, it doesn't appear to be that long, mainly because it's well proportioned and lower than a conventional SUV. With the seventeen-inch wheels that are standard on the R350, it looks a bit slab sided, but things improve with the eighteens on the R500. The AMG Sport package will have even brawnier nineteen-inch wheels and tires.
The exterior design is a bit fussy, but no one can argue with the interior, which is gorgeous-and, in truth, it's the major selling point for this vehicle. All R-class models get three rows of two seats each. The center pair slide fore and aft to give a maximum of 40.4 inches of legroom. Even the third-row seats, which have four-position backrests, allow passengers to lounge in style. All four rear seats fold completely flat for an 85-cubic-foot cargo area. Plenty of the interior components are shared with the new M-class SUV, such as the hooded gauges, the column-mounted gear selector, the voguish start/stop button, and the center stack. The architecture is different, however, and soft-touch plastics and classy wood and chrome trim make it feel like a quality piece.
The base R350 comes pretty well equipped, with a leather-wrapped, multifunction steering wheel; leather seat inserts; power windows and front seats; dual-zone climate control; and front, front side, and full-length curtain air bags. The R500 adds heated seats, an electrically adjustable steering column, burl walnut interior trim, and a six-disc CD changer.
The options list is extensive. There is a power panoramic glass sunroof that features a massive five-foot-seven-inch expanse of glass. You can opt for a DVD navigation system, heated second-row seats, three-zone climate control, a power liftgate (which shorter people will need), and a second-row entertainment system. The last has video screens in the backs of the front seats, a removable center console, and headphones, for a likely cost of between $2500 and $3000.
Mechanically, the R350 and the R500 are essentially stretched versions of the unibody M-class SUV. The DOHC, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6 engine was first seen in the SLK350 and makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Mercedes says this is good enough to propel the 4766-pound vehicle from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and on to a restricted top speed of 130 mph. The familiar SOHC, 24-valve 5.0-liter V-8 gives 302 hp and 339 lb-ft, which it needs because the R500 weighs 4845 pounds. Even so, Mercedes claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.5 seconds. The engines are mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission that has manu-matic shifting effected by buttons on the back of the steering wheel.
The all-wheel-drive system has front, center, and rear open differentials, giving a 50/50 percent torque split. The front suspension has upper and lower control arms, while the rear end has a four-link arrangement. Height- adjustable Airmatic suspension is an option, mated to adaptive damping.
Power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is standard on the R350, with a speed-sensitive arrangement on the R500. The R350 has ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes, while the R500 gets larger front rotors and ventilated discs at the rear. The optional AMG Sport package includes the aforementioned nineteen-inch wheels as well as different bumpers, side cladding, and four-piston brake calipers at both the front and the rear.
We drove an R500 and can safely say that it feels like an overgrown M-class. In the past, that would have been damning it with very faint praise, but the new M-class actually drives nicely, for a tall SUV. The R500 drives very well, too, for a supersized minivan.The familiar V-8 engine sounds sweet, particularly under full-throttle acceleration, and it endows the R500 with brisk, rather than startling, acceleration. It doesn't feel as quick off the line as Mercedes claims, but it has excellent midrange passing performance, helped by the closely stacked gear ratios. The seven-speed automatic is as slick as a corporate attorney, although the manual shift buttons aren't that easy to use.
As in the E-class, the Airmatic suspension is never quite perfect. We tended to leave it in the comfort-oriented setting, as that gives the smoothest, plushest ride. When you set the suspension in its firmest mode, the ride becomes quite harsh over expansion joints. If you fancy fast driving, you'll find the handling quite surprising for such a big vehicle. The steering is well weighted and full of feel at high speed but suffers a dead spot in low-speed running. The body control in sport mode is sensational compared with an Escalade, but the R-class is just too big, too heavy, and too tall to challenge a luxury sedan. The brakes were very impressive, as were overall grip levels.
The R500 is a really fine vehicle-fast, luxurious, and good-looking-but who's going to buy it? Mercedes says that its target audiences are "Late-Forming Affluent Families" and "Socialite Empty Nesters." Strip away the marketing speak, and that means successful professional couples who start procreating late in life and want to turn up at soccer matches with a flashy vehicle; and older, successful people who like going out with their friends. Call it a minivan for snobs, if you like.
This particular crossover makes a lot of sense for a lot of people, although Mercedes' projection of 30,000 sales a year seems very optimistic. After all, a base R350 will cost just under $50,000, and a fully loaded R500 will be close to $70,000.
We also wonder if M-B's current fascination with niche marketing isn't going to cut into its own sales. While the so-called luxury-sports-tourer market is set to expand in the future, we can't help but think that the R350 and the R500 will take sales from the E-class sedan and wagon, the M-class, the forthcoming G-class SUV, and the S-class as much as they will wean people away from luxury minivans and full-size luxury SUVs.