Born in concept form as the GST--for Grand Sport Tourer--Mercedes brought its supersized luxury crossover to market largely unchanged from the show car as the new-for-2006 R-Class. Now dubbed a "Sport Tourer," the Alabama-built R-Class shares platform basics and about 35 percent of its hardware with the equally new M-Class, including V-6 and V-8 engines and all-wheel drive. From there, this unique 2+2+2 seater treads its own path into an emerging segment that lies somewhere between, yet beyond, station wagon and SUV.
As long as an S-Class but with four more inches of wheelbase, the R-Class has a unique visual presence based on a dynamic wedge shape that yields a remarkably low 0.31-0.32 coefficient of drag. The look expands upon contemporary M-B sedan/coupe cues with boldly contoured front/rear fascias, a sweeping laid-back windshield, well-defined shoulder lines, radiused wheel arches, and four large doors. The R350 wraps its 16-inch alloy wheels with H-Rated 235/65 all-season tires, while the R500 carries V-rated 255/55 all-season rubber on 17-inch aluminum rims.
Style, space, and civility are cornerstones of the R-Class experience. The M-Class shares tubular brightwork housings for the main instruments, a four-spoke leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, and the center stack layout -- home to a standard COMAND system, dual-zone climate control and an 80-watt AM/FM/CD/Weatherband audio package -- but both the R350 and R500 have a look and feel that speaks a more overtly upscale design language. Hand-polished wood, hand-fitted leather seating inserts, well-formed front buckets with a powered driver's perch, and numerous other power assists, plus cruise control highlight the common luxo touches. A locking glovebox, covered dual-plane center storage, door pockets, four quite usable cupholders, and three 12V power points head the utility list. At R500 level, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, dual power seats/mirror memory, power adjustment for the tilt/telescoping steering column, and Tele Aid also join the mix.
Like most places, the front-row seats really are the best in the house. But with 64 percent of R-Class interior volume devoted to passenger space, average-sized adults can travel comfortably in tier two or even three. Mercedes claims the 2+2+2 layout provides legroom (and headroom for that matter) in S-Class/E-Class/C-Class quanta, respectively. The second-row buckets offer four inches of fore/aft adjustability while the third row 50/50-split bench is fixed, but folds/reclines. Long rear-side doors and flip-and-slide row-two seats simplify access/egress to the innermost sanctum, with or without the optional rear center console. All four rear seats can be easily -- and individually -- transitioned into a flat floor, raising cargo capacity from a modest 15.2 cu ft to a cavernous 85.0 total. The single-piece tailgate with a large bumper-level cutout simplifies loading.
R-Class passenger protection includes a rigid, highly reinforced central cell with engineered crash structures, three-point seatbelts with pretensioners/force-limiters, dual-stage front airbags, front-side bags, full-length side curtains, rollover sensors and a tire pressure monitoring system. ESP stability/traction control, AWD, and ABS discs with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake force Distribution are also standard, and rear side airbags are optional.
Two distinct engine families provide motivation. The R350 has M-B's new 3.5-liter DOHC modular V-6 that's now filtering into other model lines. Producing 268 hp at 6,000 rpm, it uses variable valve timing to help turn out a stout 258 lb-ft of peak torque from 2,400-5,000 revs -- 90 percent of that from just over 1,500 rpm. The SOHC V-8 in the R500 is Mercedes' veteran 5.0-liter that develops 302 hp and 339 lb-ft of twist from 2,700-4,750 rpm. Both are backed by a slick seven-speed automatic transmission that's electronically activated by a column-mounted mini-shift lever and offers TouchShift gear changes via buttons on the steering wheel. The full-time, all-wheel-drive system has three open differentials but no low range. It integrates ESP stability and traction control, and can shift power to any corner to keep the R-Class going even if only one wheel has grip. Expect a full-on AMG R-Class and possibly a diesel variant in a year or so.
However you categorize it, the new R-Class is a quiet, refined transport module with an impressive dynamic envelope. Even the V-6 provides respectable acceleration and passing power--although with a curb weight between 4,700-4,900 pounds, the V-8 is an attractive alternative, dropping 0-60-mph times from just over eight to just under seven seconds and making hilly terrain and heavy passenger loads less challenging. Coming to grips with the mini shifter entails a sharp but short learning curve, however, the seven-speed automatic performs well enough in "D" that most owners will likely forego do-it-yourself shifting exercises.
The fully independent suspension, with or without the optional Airmatic assist and multi-mode Adaptive Damping System, is equally competent. Despite a 40.7-ft turning circle and tires that favor comfort over absolute grip, the R-Class maneuvers well and feels exceptionally positive and self-assured through corners. When you do start pressing it to the limit, ESP, AWD, and a multi-faceted and quite capable ABS system step up as needed to help maintain that confident character.
If there is a caveat of note, it relates to the long, conventionally hinged rear doors. They simply don't provide the same ease of entry/exit as the sliding units on most minivans do when you're trying to load people or transfer child seats in a crowded parking lot.
Affluent early adopters who want style, practicality, and something a bit out of the norm are prime R-Class targets, with late-forming boomer families and forward-looking empty nesters topping the hit list. While Mercedes contends that the R-Class creates the luxury Sport Touring segment, Volvo partisans may well counter that the XC90 is already there. And its corporate cousin, the Chrysler Pacifica, is definitely present in spirit if not sheer sumptuousness. Although critics may see the R-Class as an overgrown station wagon, or worse, a mega-minivan, other manufacturers--notably Audi with its soon-on-the-scene Q7, BMW with its upcoming V-Series, and even Mazda with the new Mazda5--clearly believe that buyers are ready for a new breed of people movers aimed at adventurous on-roaders.
Practical and personable, the new R-Class has the style and spirit to score with buyers, no matter what niche it may occupy.
Distinctive style Outstanding overall utility Comfortable seats in all three rows
Conventionally hinged rear doors Limited cargo space with seats up Third-row cupholders are optional
Unconventional but engaging, the R-Class brings the Mercedes-Benz touch to the premium people-mover segment.
The R-Class upgrade roster includes the following Packages: AMG Sport (body/interior trim, 19-inch wheels, 255/50 tires), Lighting (corner-following Bi-Xenon headlamps with washers, corner-sensing fog lamps), Entertainment (harman/kardon LOGIC7 sound system, rear audio controls, CD changer), Premium (Entertainment Package plus Panoramic Roof, power liftgate, DVD-based Navigation, Tele-Aid), Sunroof (power moonroof/rear-quarter windows), and Rear-seat Entertainment (harman/kardon sound plus dual 7.0-inch DVD screens). Tri-zone climate control, full leather upholstery, Airmatic/Adaptive Damping suspension, integrated iPod adapter, power rear liftgate, multicontour seats, Sirius Satellite Radio and Keyless Go (R500 only) are also available.