First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

The Mercedes-Benz R-class was introduced in 2005 amid high expectations, but sales have been disappointing-particularly recently. In 2009 the Mercedes GL-class SUV outsold the R-class five-to-one, and the M-class outsold it by a factor of nine. Now coming up on the six-year mark, the R-class might be expected to undergo a full redesign, but instead the 2011 model is getting new sheetmetal only from the A-pillar forward, along with minor equipment revisions, and carryover powertrains.

While Mercedes product managers are happy to boast that the R-class has the functionality of a minivan-and it does-the designers' goal was to downplay the minivan aspect. "The previous one was more soft-looking, more [like a] minivan," says designer Hubert Lee. "We were trying to give it more of a sporty, SUV/tourer look." To move the R-class from a one-box, minivan profile to more of a two-box, SUV look, Lee and his colleagues from Mercedes' California studio raised the hood, enlarged the grille, and squared off the front end. More angular headlights, a new bumper with low-mounted daytime running lights (available as LEDs), and reshaped fenders complete the front-end makeover. At the rear, redone taillight graphics and a new bumper are supposed to create a more horizontal emphasis. Detail changes elsewhere include new side mirrors and new wheels.

In recent years, the number of R-class variants has dwindled. Rear-wheel-drive has been dropped, as have the V-8-powered offerings-both the 5.0-liter R500 and the AMG version. (The latter has to be one of the rarest, and most unlikely, vehicles ever to come from Mercedes' in-house tuner.) A short-wheelbase variant is sold in other markets, but has never been offered here. The new, 2011 R-class will come in the same two configurations as the 2010 model: R350 4Matic and R350BlueTEC 4Matic.

The gasoline-engine R350 is the volume model, accounting for roughly 95 percent of sales. Its 3.5-liter V-6 makes 268 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque, sent to all four wheels via a seven-speed automatic transmission. As we know them from elsewhere in the Mercedes lineup, both the engine and gearbox are polished performers, but the V-6 feels fully matched by the R350's 5000 pounds. (Mercedes quotes a 0-to-60-mph time of 8 seconds.) Throttle response is languid, and the hills of northern Westchester County often had the transmission calling for more than one downshift to maintain speed.

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Don't forget that the bluetech engine requires a rather pricey maintenance schedule to replace a very interesting fluid... it's still probably more economical, but I've heard of people getting gouged by the dealership on this service.

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