Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - R-class - 350L 5-dr wagon
Looks, space, comfort, ride, V6 performance and refinement, practicality, engineering
Room for improvement
Gear lever, costly options, sheer size not always practical
23 Mar 2007
AFTER almost 120 years, why shouldn’t we expect a Mercedes-Benz people-mover? Isn’t this what cars are meant to do?
Old-school owners and die-hard fans alike seem aghast at the notion that the once archly conservative, resolutely traditional and steadfastly engineering-led company would pander to the needs of groups of people. Especially when they’re mostly American people’s needs.
But meeting people’s wants – if not their needs – is what Mercedes is all about, as the domination of the luxury S-class sedan in its segment over the last half-century proves.
Even the Stuttgart firm’s most famous model – the 1950s 300SL Gullwing – was devised primarily at the behest of Benz’s American dealers.
So it is no surprise to learn that the R-class, a vehicle that Mercedes refers to as a "Grand Sport Tourer" since it combines a wagon, SUV and MPV, is built in the United States – Tuscaloosa, to be exact.
What many may not realise is that Mercedes’ first people-mover is actually spun off the second-generation M-class SUV platform – which also underpins the new GL-class uber-4WD wagon.
In fact, all three share suspension, drivetrain and cabin architecture componentry.
Just don’t expect to go off-road with this star-crossed crossover. It’s an on-road only device, although the astounding amount of grip on offer means unbelievable traction is yours for the taking come rain, hail or shine.
But don’t be disappointed, because this Mercedes completely and utterly exceeded all of our expectations.
It is, in a nutshell, the next step up from a Tarago or an Odyssey.
For starters, the R350L feels special in a way that some Mercs haven’t for a long time now.
The styling has a way of growing on you. It took a little while to get used to, but there is a dynamic, offbeat funkiness that you just don’t expect from a Mercedes.
You might liken the goofy round headlights, as well as the sheer bulk of the thing, as a sort of automotive Homer Simpson – all big and dumb.
But if you get past the fact that this is an overblown Benz built in America for big Americans, you will start to see that this really is one hell of a functional family car.
The interior certainly is spacious, with four absolutely superb seats in rows one and two, although having a 2+2+2 arrangement is limiting because if a fifth person travels, then around half of the luggage area is lost in order to accommodate that person in the rearmost pew.
What Mercedes needs to do is introduce a three-person second-row for the R-class to work. Apparently this is on the way.
However, for now, as a six-seater, the R350L is as comfortable as you would hope from a car that is almost 5.3 metres long and two metres wide.
The rearmost seats are certainly sufficiently accommodating for most average-sized adults, even if they are shaded by the luxuriant qualities of the middle chairs.
With impressive speed and ease, rows two and three fold flush (onto themselves and into the floor respectively) to make a makeshift sleeping space, even for souls exceeding 200cm in height – or, alternatively, a flat loading area.
On the other hand, the fiddly – and optional – second-row console is an expensive and constant source of rattles, and undermines what is otherwise an outstandingly relaxing and refined motoring experience, even if it does supply a handy repository for paraphernalia, drinks and plugging in electrical items.
Entry and exit to the back row is also fairly easy in the long-wheelbase R350L, due in no small way to the l-o-n-g rear doors.
For a fee, buyers can have rearmost side windows that open electrically to aid ventilation and/or reduce the feeling of claustrophobia. They can also lash out on a useful electrically operated tailgate that will never fail to amuse.
As a mini bus, then, the R350L excels transporting a family of four and all their gear, or carrying six people with virtually no luggage.
Either way, there is a limousine-like luxury to it that makes all on board feel as if the paparazzi should be trailing behind on motorbikes – especially if the privacy glass option box is ticked.
Once again, going beyond our expectations, is just how good the R350L is to drive.
Indeed, the Mercedes shocked us at just how adept a driver’s device it really is.
Settle behind the wheel, in front of the logically laid-out instruments and easy-to-reach controls, and you are immediately made to feel at home, in spite of the vast length of vehicle that awaits.
As has been the case for over a decade now, old-school (pre-1990s) Mercedes owners might wish for the sturdy, quality materials that the German company once employed in its vehicles. The stuff they use these days looks downmarket. Could it have made the indicator noise sound cheaper!
Never mind, because the actual mechanical package is certainly above par.
Tested in the long-wheelbase R350L guise (measuring 3215mm against the ‘short’ wheelbase’s 2980mm), Benz’s new-generation 3.5-litre V6 engine runs on 95 RON premium unleaded petrol to produce 200kW of power at 6000rpm and 350Nm of torque at 2400rpm.
This is a pearler of a powerplant, revving all the way to 6500rpm without sounding or feeling strained.
Acceleration is brisk from launch speeds, and gets stronger through the engine’s mid-ranges. There is certainly enough go for most drivers to feel satisfied with the amount of performance on hand.
Driving all four wheels permanently is a seven-speed automatic gearbox, dubbed 7Gtronic in Mercedes-speak.
With its intelligently spaced gearing and steering wheel-sited toggle switches for gear changing, the 7Gtronic seven-speed automatic gearbox delivers smooth and responsive changes every single time.
Averaging between 14 and 15L/100km (the official average is 11.5-11.7L/100km), and often driven hard in urban conditions, it is quite reasonable to expect that fuel consumption will drop well below 10L/100km on the open road.
The steering, though low geared, is predictable and very benign, yet sharp and easy to place – which is astounding for a vehicle that weighs well over two tonnes.
Obviously, the R350L’s sheer size means you won’t be challenging Golf GTIs on your favourite snaky road, but there is every possibility the driver will soon forget just how big it really is.
Parking isn’t so difficult either, due in no small way by the huge outside mirrors, commanding driving position, and – of course – the standard (and extremely necessary) parking sensors front and rear.
The optional camera adds a whole new level of safety and security, especially when there are children or pets about.
Another R plus is how isolated from the outside world it makes you feel.
Part of this is due to the exceptional ride quality. It traverses bumps with ease while ensuring progress is both supple and cushioned. A lack of wind noise and minimal road noise intrusion further bolster refinement levels.
Occupants feel pampered at all times, which should be the way of every Mercedes-Benz.
After a few hundred kilometres behind the wheel, some of the R350L’s details (as well as peculiarities) become apparent.
The cruise control set-up is brilliantly simple and logical – particularly the ‘LIM’ limiter switch that will not allow you to exceed a predetermined speed, unless you absolutely floor the accelerator.
The optional double glass roof, with its cavernous opening, adds a feeling of airiness and lightness to an interior that is in danger of being too sombre in the black leather finish of the test car.
Meanwhile, we do have reservations about the gear selector, which works exceedingly well when you need to select Park, or Reverse and Drive in regular operational situations, but then is all-too easy to press and activate Park when in motion, or knock the stubby lever into neutral on the go, which can then present a number of potentially unfortunate scenarios.
Why there is no electrical override for this is bewildering, especially on a vehicle by safety-obsessed Mercedes.
But it’s one of the very few minus points in a people-mover that seems to major in comfort, attitude, performance and style.
Shortly there will be more such vehicles from rival luxury manufacturers, but for now the R350L does deserve a place in a world where – all too often – the alternatives are heavier, fatter and less stable SUVs.
The R-class is about challenging your expectations – about what a Mercedes-Benz is and what it ought to do, what you get from a vehicle designed to span a number of market segments, and where its place in the world might be.
Frankly, we expected to be underwhelmed by this oversized oddity. Happily, we were wrong.
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