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.