First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
Will a new nose make it a winner?
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.
WHAT'S IN A NOSE
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.
JUST TWO MODELS
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.
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.
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-class
Base price (estimated): $50,000/$51,000 (R350 BlueTEC 4Matic/R350 4Matic)
On sale: July 2010
Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6
Horsepower: 268 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm
Engine: 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve turbodiesel V-6
Horsepower: 210 hp @ 3800 rpm
Torque: 400 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 14/19 mpg (gasoline), 18/24 mpg (diesel)
L x W x H: 203.1 x 85.4 x 65.4 in
Wheelbase: 126.6 in
Curb weight: 4949/5203 lbs (gasoline/diesel)
Cargo capacity 15.2/42.2/85.0 cu ft (behind third/second/front seats)