Review: 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

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.

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