First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

It's surprising that so few buyers choose the diesel, because it's the better choice in almost every way. The turbodiesel may be 0.6 second slower to 60 mph on the factory stopwatch, but it's much more responsive in real life with its muscular 400 pound-feet of torque available from a low, 1600 rpm. Uphill grades and small bursts of acceleration are often handled without any downshifting. And, from inside the car at least, the diesel is almost as quiet as the gas engine. Oh, and then there's the fuel economy, where the BlueTEC's 18/24 mpg EPA estimates crush the gasoline V-6's 14/18 mpg figures. Mercedes charges about $1500 more for the R350 BlueTEC, but it seems well worth the premium.

The interior of the R-class is largely unchanged. As was the case before, six-passenger seating is standard, and a middle bench seat to replace the standard two buckets is an option, which raises capacity to seven. The third-row seat is adult-habitable, and there's a reasonable 15.2 cubic feet of luggage space with all three rows of seats in use. The 2011 update barely touches the interior-the R-class, for instance, still does not get the excellent multifunction knob controller seen already in the Mercedes sedans.

As you might expect with a family-oriented machine, comfort is a priority over sportiness. The steering is light 'n easy, the suspension is soft-riding (with no Airmatic option to firm things up), and seat cushion's lateral support melts away at the first sign of hard cornering. Available driver aids include blind spot warning (new for 2011), Distronic adaptive cruise control, a back-up camera, park assist, navigation, and keyless ignition-all are optional. Available two-tone color schemes (tan and black or light and dark gray) liven up the interior, where leatherette is standard and leather costs extra.

The new face does have more of a family resemblance to other Mercedes models, but this is hardly a transformative redesign. The hood may be higher, but you still can't see it from the driver's seat. The changes to the R-class might arrest the sales slide, but they're probably not extensive enough to reverse it. Utility buyers needing three rows of seats likely will continue to gravitate to the GL, despite its roughly $10,000 steeper cost of entry; while those who don't need more than five seats will choose the popular M-class. For those Mercedes buyers who do shop the R-class-perhaps because they're looking for maximum seating capacity while avoiding a high-riding SUV-we'd heartily recommend the R350 BlueTEC over its gasoline counterpart.

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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