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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - R-class - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Versatility, driving position, seating comfort, V8 power
Room for improvement
Space-saver spare, limited rear luggage room with seats up, expensive options

12 Apr 2006

IN the safe havens of the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Airport Express compound on the fringes of Sydney airport, the new R-class fits in.

Its sleek styling, huge three-pointed star on the grille and distinctive Mercedes-Benz styling cues blend harmoniously with everything from an A-class to an M-class.

Here it is at home. The powerful lines and commanding presence imprint on the memory even when the car’s stationary. It represents a fine piece of Germany thinking.

However, the R-class, like the M-class and soon-to-be-launched GL-class, is built at Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the good ol’ US of A.

It is clearly intended for North American consumption, where everything is as big as Texas, including the population.

At more than 5.1 metres long and 1.9 metres wide, the six-seater long-wheelbase all-wheel drive R-class is huge. Bear in mind that a Toyota LandCruiser is just a smidge wider and higher but 167mm shorter than a LWB R-class.

The R-class’s relatively low roof height – it’s lower than an M-class – cannot disguise the fact that it truly is a big mother.

However, the Mercedes-Benz team has done well to disguise its bulk with a steeply raked windscreen, narrow snout and low roofline, having based the production version on the Vision GST concept car, which boasted rear suicide doors.

Thankfully conventional rear doors have been adopted for the road-going versions.

In essence, the R-class package creates something of a quandary on just where it fits.

It clearly cannot really be thought of as an upright orthodox MPV, nor a wagon or even pure off-roader.

Mercedes-Benz reckons it needs its own category. We think so too because the R-class represents a new genre of vehicle.

It is far too lavishly equipped – in R500 guise – to be confused with a humble wagon and far too sleek to be considered an off-roader.

The discreet "4matic" badge on the rear hatch also denotes all-wheel drive, further adding to the confusion.

Apart from the 225kW/460Nm R500 we drove, two other models will be available locally - a 200kW/350Nm 3.5-litre V6 R350 and 165kW/510Nm 3.0-litre V6 R320CDi.

Mercedes tells us an AMG version is planned as well.

All three engines, as well as the smooth-shifting seven-speed automatics, are shared with other Mercedes-Benz vehicles and so too are the impressive performance characteristics.

Any engine combo can be ordered in either long or short-wheelbase configuration but after driving the petrol V6 back-to-back with the V8, the extra urge of the bent eight wins hands down.

At more than two tonnes, the R-class needs the extra kiloWatts afforded by the bigger engine.

The R500’s 5.0-litre V8 delivers 255kW at 5600rpm and 460Nm from 2700rpm to 4750rpm, so there’s ample spread of torque across the rev range and a muted growl from the twin exhausts.

Mercedes quotes a 13.3L/100km average for fuel consumption, which is respectable given the car’s weight. The 80-litre tank ensures a good touring range.

Not surprisingly, the R-class borrows a lot of platform architecture from the M-class. Like the rugged off-roader, the R’s suspension is double wishbone up front with a four-link anti-squat and anti-dive system at the back.

Being the range-topper, the R500 also gains an adaptive damping and semi-active air-suspension, which manages to smooth the bumps and provide an impressive level of dynamic finesse for press-on motoring.

Without the system the R’s overall bulk and length are felt through sharper corners. With the system, it smooths and sharpens driver inputs.

The system adjusts the R500’s shock absorber settings every 0.05 seconds. It automatically firms-up in corners, will soften for rougher roads and drops the car’s ride height at 120km/h for improved handling and aerodynamics.

There’s also a switch to increase the vehicle’s ground clearance by 50mm to traverse those well-worn tracks to the polo field.

In keeping with its sophistication, the system has three modes – auto, sport and comfort.

For most purposes we preferred comfort as it would automatically adjust the suspension if required when powering through windy roads. In sport, the ride was unduly harsh.

Given the car’s bulk, you might expect the R-class to wallow around like a land yacht, but the precision of the air suspension tamed any wayward behaviour.

There was some bodyroll but this, like the modest understeer, was induced at ridiculously high cornering speeds, just proving that the juggernaut could handle.

On the highway at normal cruising speeds there was a loafy, limousine-like ride, passengers cocooned away from road and wind noise and the long-wheelbase smothering any imperfections in the road.

The car’s 11.5-metre turning circle is also impressively sedan-like.

The big story is inside. Passengers will marvel at the expanse of interior room and the number of stowage areas.

The thoroughness of thinking extends to the fresh air outlets. Mercedes says there are 27 different outlets throughout the car. We didn’t count them so we’ll take their word for it.

The available interior space is impressive, with plenty of leg and headroom for all six adult occupants.

Each of the vehicle’s six passengers can sit back and relax in comfortable individual seats that offer the added luxury of armrests in the second row.

The second-row seats can also be adjusted individually fore and aft, thereby increasing the seat spacing to as much as 990mm.

The rear seats also fold flat for an expansive load area of up to 2385 litres. With all the seats up though, there is limited luggage room.

Loading and unloading is straightforward, courtesy of the level load floor measuring more than 2.2 metres long. The optional electronic Easy-Pack tailgate lift – at $1550 – is a sensible inclusion.

Unfortunately, an inflatable space-saver spare is standard.

Mercedes claims that in its M-class, less than six cars ordered out of about 800 now sold in Australia have been ordered with a full-size spare.

It believes there would be little demand in the R-class for a full-size spare. We disagree. Most people don’t even think about the spare until they need it.

If you have a puncture in the R-class the flat will not fit into the space allocated to the spacesaver spare so it may be dumped in the back of the car.

Great if you’ve got a full complement of luggage and passengers.

Among the extensive, and expensive, options list is a removable centre console between the individual seats in the second row, standard on the R500 but a $1250 option on other models. The console has extra stowage compartments along with large cup holders.

Standard equipment, as you might expect of the range-topper, is impressive.

The R500 comes with Nappa leather, adaptive suspension, Harmon Kardon six-stacker CD stereo, 18-inch alloys, parktronic, electric front seats with memory, auto dimming rear view mirror, dual front side, and curtain airbags, Pre-Safe system, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, adaptive front headrests, tyre pressure monitoring system, Comand system and Thermotronic climate control with a separate rear climate control system.

The R500L also gains the "Touring" pack, which includes a compass, burr walnut highlights, electric rear vent windows, aluminium trim highlights, multi-contoured seatbacks and rear centre console between the second row of seats.

Mercedes has priced the R-class from $82,900 to $122,900 – for the R500L – across an area that straddles the rarified region where there is little choice between a luxury four-wheel drive or luxury wagon.

Currently, there is little else out there that competes directly against R-class.

There are a few luxury wagons from Audi, BMW and perhaps a couple of full-blown four-wheel drives like the Range Rover Sport, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne that may challenge.

However, for the time being, this "crossover" has the field all to itself.

Mercedes-Benz may be right in thinking there is an untapped market out there waiting for a people-mover that’s not a people-mover.

We’ll wait and see.

But just because you build it does not necessarily mean they will come.

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