2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class
This 2006 review is representative of model years 2006 to 2010.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Nobody quite knows what market niche the innovative new Mercedes-Benz R-Class vehicle occupies. Mercedes vaguely calls it a "new class of vehicle," "sports tourer" and "automotive decathlete that can excel at an unprecedented range of owner needs."
Call it what you will, the R-Class certainly is intriguing.
"People look at the R-Class and just don't know what to call it because the market in which it fits hasn't been defined," said Ron Mueller, manager of Luxury Sport Utility and Touring vehicles for Mercedes-Benz USA at an R-Class media preview in California's Carmel Valley.
But Mercedes didn't make the R-Class overly complicated, Mercedes-Benz USA President Paul Halata said at the preview. Halata said Mercedes "overdid it" by giving some fairly recent Mercedes models technical features not well received in America—a move that has resulted in lower quality ratings in national, independent surveys.
"We found our American customers don't want as many technical features as those in Europe," Halata said. "We don't feel like we're taking a chance with the R-Class because it's been popular in concept form at auto shows and in consumer clinics. Being long, it's also an American-sized vehicle."
Handles Tough Test Drive
The R-Class looks like a Mercedes sports coupe or sedan from the front, a long station wagon or modified minivan from the side and an SUV from the rear.
"The R-Class acts like a car, so drivers forget that they have all those seats behind them," Mueller said. That was my impression, although a rear wheel hit a curb once when I was making a tight turn because I forgot about the R-Class length.
The closest competitors are the Cadillac SRX and Chrysler Pacifica, which have a 116-inch wheelbase, or distance between axles. The R-Class has an incredibly long 126.6-inch wheelbase, which allows lots of occupant and cargo room, besides a smooth ride.
The R-Class is lower than the SRX and Pacifica and is 4.2 inches longer overall than the Pacifica and fully 8 inches longer than the SRX. The R-Class is even 14.5 inches longer overall than Mercedes' revamped midsize M-Class sport-utility vehicle.
Two Trim Levels
The R-Class is packed with comfort and convenience items. It also has many safety features because Mercedes long has been as big on safety as Volvo.
Options include a height-adjustable air suspension, regular power sunroof and fixed panoramic sunroof over the second- and third-row seats with a glass panel nearly six feet long that floods the interior with light.
The transmission works so well with the V6 that many will feel they don't really need the costlier V8 version. However, the V8 doesn't work as hard to move the R-Class, which weighs a hefty 4,766 pounds with the V6 and 4,845 pounds with the V8.
The R350 sprints to 60 mph from a standing start in 7.8 seconds, while the R500 reaches that speed in 6.5 seconds. High-speed cruising is effortless, with both versions loafing at 80 mph. Top speed is electronically limited to 130 mph.
Mercedes estimates that 75 percent of buyers will opt for the R350 because the R-Class mostly is a practical, luxurious, prestigious vehicle, not one bought for the fastest acceleration.
No Fuel Miser
A small steering column stalk—really an electrical switch—controls the transmission. A driver just moves the stalk up or down a short distance to get reverse and drive gears and taps the end of it to put the transmission in park model. Manual shift buttons on the steering wheel also can be used to change gears. They work OK, but I felt little need to use them, even on mountain roads.
Turn Signal Confusion
Here's a nice low-tech touch: The built-in bottle/can opener that surrounds the front console cupholders is beautifully disguised as a shiny trim piece. Mercedes once felt—and probably still does—that drinking beverages while driving is a distraction and never would have put an item such as the opener in a vehicle.
But things change—Mueller said Mercedes put the small automatic transmission lever in the R-Class partly because it allows installation of the large front console beverage containers.
Getting to all seats is easy through wide doors, and each occupant can "create their own sense of space" with individual reading lights, armrests, air vents and cupholders, along with adjustments for each seat and separate-source audio plugs. There's also an optional iPod integration kit and dual-screen video entertainment system. One passenger can watch a movie on one screen, while another can watch another DVD or play a video game.
Large Cargo Area
I sat in the right front, middle and rear seats while being driven and found the ride comfortable in all of them, even though the third-row seats are above the rear axle. That location causes a bouncy ride in some vehicles.
Variety of Buyers
The R-Class is made in the Alabama plant that produces the M-Class SUV. Alabama plant boss Bill Taylor said R-Class production is starting slow to ensure good quality.
"We've got assembly line robots, but it all comes down to our workers in the end to get a quality product," Taylor said.
Breaking New Ground
Mercedes has become increasingly adventuresome in recent years because of more intense competition, and the R-Class is one of its most daring models.