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Mercedes-Benz R-Class review (2006-2009)
So what exactly is the R-Class? Take a look at the pictures and you decide. Estate? Four-door coupe? SUV? Well it’s none of these yet combines attributes of all.
Mercedes claims the R-Class is a new concept, with the lavish comfort of a luxury saloon, the versatility of an estate, the all-weather capability of an SUV and the capacity of an MPV. In a nutshell what you get is six seats in three rows, four-wheel-drive, a high quality interior with some powerful engines and a price tag that will start at £42,000 when it is launched in the UK in the spring of next of 2006.
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Six seats usually means either a people carrier or a sports utility vehicle, but the R-Class is plainly neither. It’s too low and swoopy and if anything, looks like an upscale version of the recent B-Class. The R-Class is a Grand Sports Tourer, and it is designed to pinch buyers from other brands who like the idea of something rather different. Two bodies, three engines and one transmission form the building block of the R-Class range. The short wheelbase model will take the bulk of the sales in Europe whereas the Americans will take only the whopping 5.15m long LWB model driven here – the same length as an S-Class limousine.
These cars were all early-build models shipped over to Europe so that we could drive the R-Class as the same time as the Americans; as we shall see, there are some major differences in market requirements.
Firmly pitched at the luxury end of the market, the engine options are decidedly big and powerful. The base model, if there can be such a thing, gets DaimlerChrysler’s new 3.5-litre V6, the common rail unit developing 272bhp, which is said to be good enough for 144mph and acceleration to 60mph in 8.3 seconds. Topping off the range is the R500 with the expected 5.0-litre V8 and 306bhp, but the diesel will be the most-popular option in Europe. The 320CDI engine, a new unit this year, produces 224bhp and, more significantly, 510Nm of torque - more than the R500. You get Mercedes’ excellent seven-speed 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission on all, with a selector on the steering column rather than the floor.
This deals with all the changes electronically rather the lever movement actually engaging levers below the floor in the traditional sense. It makes things light and easy, and it makes sense when there are additional gearshift buttons on the back of the steering wheel so the driver can select gears manually. Just like Kimi Raikkonen.
Mercedes’ claims this is going to be a dynamic driving experience. But these US specification vehicles, with suspension and steering biased more towards comfort than we Europeans might desire, are far from that. Even the combination of four-wheel-drive, the low body (for a six-seater) and a whole host of electronic controls to keep you out of trouble don’t make this a sporting vehicle. The long wheelbase version feels enormous and just not light enough on its feet to feel dynamic. The changes to European models will undoubtedly improve things for our roads, and the shorter R-Class – not available on our test - is said to be sharper still, but it’s still doubtful whether it will come close to an X5 or Range Rover.
The R350 is overshadowed by the bigger R500. With a kerb weight well over two tonnes the V6 just doesn’t have the guts to make the R-Class live up to the promise. The V8, despite having only 12% more power, has the torque to make all the difference. It gives fast, gutsy performance that belies the bulk of this massive vehicle. Both are extremely smooth and refined. It will be, however, the diesel that will be the big seller in Europe. Production cars haven’t been built yet but the combined economy figure of 30mpg, the massive torque and promised low emissions will deal the killer blow. We know too that this new engine works extremely well in the E-Class where it was launched earlier this year.
The interior will be the make or break of the R-Class, and first impressions are good. The six seats are all individual and the three-row format allows for astonishing levels of space for everyone. With the second row pushed right back, there’s the feeling that only a Maybach would offer greater legroom. Or comfort. For the R-Class is a very comfortable place to travel, the superb seats getting folding armrests, and noise and ride levels kept suitably subdued. There are independent heating and ventilation controls for those in the middle row and the option of a panoramic glass roof with an area of over a square metre. All the rear seats tip forward for extra luggage capacity when you don’t need all the seats.
So does it make sense, this R-Class? The initial impression is that this is a car more focussed on American market requirements. The need to carry six adults in complete comfort is a limited one in Europe unless you own a hotel. UK drivers already love their seven-seat off-roaders and, at these prices, it is difficult to see them flocking to the R-Class.
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