03/21/06 — R-Class is dandy new idea from Mercedes

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R-Class is dandy new idea from Mercedes

Mercedes R-Class (2006)

It was not many years ago when Mercedes-Benz sold only luxury sedans and sports cars, at least on U.S. soil.

Mercedes is still one of the world’s foremost builders of those type vehicles for folks with higher disposal incomes than the vast majority of Americans.

Mercedes R-Class, 2006

But in recent times Mercedes has branched out becoming all things to all people — all people of considerable means.

Eight years ago the German company added a sport utility vehicle. But that was predictable. If a company did not have an SUV in the lineup by the late 1990s, it had missed the boat. Even niche companies were not left at the dock — Porsche, of course, comes to mind with its Cayenne SUV.

Now Mercedes has ventured out into up-to-now alien territory by introducing a people mover of sorts. For the purpose of description, it could be classified an upscale minivan, a modern station wagon or a crossover sport utility vehicle.

Mercedes says its R-Class is none of the above.

The official name is Grand Sports Tourer. Without further description, that doesn’t mean much in today’s auto lexicon.

If you are familiar with the Chrysler Pacifica, think of the R-Class as a bigger and more luxurious version. Both are built by DaimlerChrysler, both have swing-open passenger doors, both have a hatchback and both have six chairs in three rows.

There are big differences between the Chrysler and the Mercedes, however. The biggest dissimilarities come in luxury appointments and size.

The R-Class is bigger than the Chrysler in two key dimensions. It’s 4 1/2 inches longer (203 inches) with an incredible 10-inch longer wheelbase (126 inches) creating a luxury cruiser that truly can hold six adults comfortably in three rows. The smaller Pacifica’s third row is best reserved for children.

The R-Class is loaded with luxury appointments. It’s akin to driving an S-Class sedan with the cargo space of a big sport utility.

It features a bold, aerodynamic design. The creased edges of the hood flow up into the A-pillars. The roofline slopes rearward from the A-pillar taking the shape of the stylish CLS sedan. A character line rises from the front fender to meet the top edge of the wrap-around taillight.

The design makes the Mercedes look longer than it is, and it’s long, five inches longer than a 2006 Cadillac Escalade.

The rear doors are huge, which makes entry to the second-row seats painless. They also make for a potential problem in a tight parking lot. The doors are not meant to be flung open, but opened gradually to test the space available between the Mercedes and the car sitting next to it.

If you regularly carry five or six people, the R-Class is the most comfortable luxury vehicle on the market. All passengers will get separate chairs. No more crowding three people uncomfortably into the back seat of a sedan. Even those who are relegated to the rear, will find their accommodations — including leg room and head room — acceptable.

The second-row seats flip forward with the pull of a lever, allowing for relatively easy access to the rear. The second-row chairs can be moved fore and aft several inches giving passengers the opportunity to reach optimum leg room based on the needs of the front-and-rear occupants.

The chair backs can be reclined into a long-haul position. Check the options list and they can also be heated for optimum comfort on the those cold-morning drives.

If you opt for the $3,000 rear entertainment package, second-row passengers get a DVD entertainment system with individually controlled screens and earphone connections integrated into the back of the front seat headrests.

A removable center armrest with storage areas is available between the second-row captain’s chairs for such items as the DVD remote control

All six occupants are afforded reading lights, storage areas and cupholders.

In fact, two cupholders up front are un-Mercedes-like. They can handle the biggest cups that the fast food industry can supply. Considering this is a German vehicle, that’s big news. German cupholder has been an oxymoron in the past.

Rear seat occupants can also enjoy the big sky if you opt for the panoramic glass sunroof that is positioned over the second and third row seats. The harsh mid-day sun is filtered through a large net screen.

When the seats are not in use there is an enormous amount of storage space for the weekend do-it-yourselfer who enjoys loading up at Home Depot. Folding all seats will create 85 cubic feet of storage. Luggage capacity behind the third row is 15 cubic feet.

The R-Class comes in two flavors.

The R350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 263 horsepower and 258 pound feet of torque. Starting price including destination charge is $48,775. The R500 is powered by a 5.0-liter V-8 that puts out 302 horsepower and 339 pound-feet for torque starting at $56,275.

Both models come with full-time all-wheel drive and a 7-speed automatic transmission that is shifted by a small electronic switch on the steering wheel. Flick it up for reverse and down for drive. To achieve park, just push in. Rocker switches on the back side of the steering wheel allow for manual shifting.

Although the R350 weighs in at a portly 4,841 pounds, the V-6 is up to the task of pulling the Mercedes nicely from a stop and in all driving situations. The R350 handles like a big sedan, but drives smaller. It feels relatively sporty in the twists, but before getting too frisky you must remember you are in a large passenger vehicle.

Estimated 0 to 60 time with the V-6 is around 8 seconds.

If you demand more power, open your checkbook a bit wider and move up to the V-8.

The dashboard layout is standard Mercedes, which means the uninitiated my need to spend some time with the owner’s manual to become familiar with the operating systems including the climate control and stereo.

The interior is classy, befitting the R350’s price, with high-quality leather and burl walnut wood and aluminum trim.

All R-Class models are well outfitted with standard safety equipment including traction control, antilock brakes and electronic stability control in addition to the aforementioned all-wheel drive. Side airbags for rear passengers are optional.

Our test car came with several options including the sunroof package, navigation package, power tailgate, 18-inch wheels and upgraded sound system. The bottom line was $57,465.

The R is in a class by itself, but competition is on the way from Audi, Lincoln, Lexus and BMW. A new segment may soon be created.

For now, Mercedes has a dandy stand-alone product for those who want upscale transportation for five or six adults, or just for carrying a lot of stuff in very stylish sheetmetal.

This Alabama-built Mercedes should be a hit. It was a hit in our little corner of the world.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on March 21, 2006 9:31 AM