In the late 1990s, Mercedes-Benz introduced the car division's first "truck" with the M-Class SUV. The company's commercial division had supplied the world with vans, medium- and heavy-duty haulers, and the rugged Geländewagen, but the car division had not sold an American-style SUV until the Alabama-built ML320 emerged in 1997.
The company learned quite a bit about American tastes for such vehicles in the wake of this launch. So, when Mercedes-Benz introduced the second generation, it brought out three flavors.
First was the new M-Class. Second was the award-winning, seven-passenger GL-Class. The third model was the much-overlooked R-Class. U.S. sales of the R-Class have been underwhelming, peaking in 2006 at just 18,168 units.
Perhaps its lackluster sales stem from the R-Class design. Although every manufacturer throws around the term crossover to describe what would have been a station wagon or SUV only a few years ago, the R-Class might be one of the few vehicles to deserve such a moniker. It's related to the M-Class--but it's definitely not an SUV. It has three rows of seats--but you wouldn't call it a minivan.
When Mercedes-Benz introduced the concept at the 2001 Detroit show, it was called the Vision GST (for "Grand Sports Tourer"). In Europe, "touring" editions of cars are simply station wagons in the United States, and the R-Class has the look of a tall, modern station wagon.
Once you look inside, however, the car takes on another theme.
Three rows of seats each provide room for two passengers, instead of cramming a third passenger in between people (although a seventh seat is an option). Each of your well-dressed passengers is provided the comfort of a leather seat all his or her own. The seating alone makes this more of a six-passenger luxury car than a minivan.
With ample headroom inside, the R-Class is not quite six-feet tall on the outside. Bowing to the pressure of America's SUV owners, the R-Class features a raised driver's seating position and a sloped nose to give a command-of-the-road viewpoint. From the helm, you'd think you were piloting any of the Mercedes-Benz senior luxury cars--if not for the better view.
All the luxury touches one expects from a Mercedes-Benz are here. A panorama sunroof stretches over all seats. In addition to covering the heated seats, leather wraps around the steering wheel. Hand-polished burl walnut trim highlights the console. The featured COMMAND infotainment system sits right in the middle of that console, combining the sound system, video controller, Bluetooth phone, and navigation.
Radio broadcasts through the standard FM and AM signals are enhanced with terrestrial HD Radio and satellite Sirius programming. Your iPod or MP3 player can be added to the system in addition to the included hard drive storage unit.
The in-dash six-disc changer (and additional one-disc player in the armrest) can handle both CDs and DVDs, which can play through the rear video monitors (along with the front monitor when the vehicle is parked). No matter what the source is, the sound emanates through excellent Harmon/Kardon speakers that include a rear-mounted subwoofer...catching every note of Don't Mess with the Zohan or Public Enemy.
With the 2011 restyle, the R-Class lineup was simplified to two models. I drove the R350 powered by a 3.5L DOHC V6 producing 268 horsepower.
Mated to the seven-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel drive, the R350 has been rated at 15 m.p.g. city and 19 m.p.g. on the highway. For better fuel economy, the optional R350 BlueTEC replaces the gas engine with a 3.0L V6 turbo diesel unit. Although it provides an ample 210 horsepower, it has a more miserly rating of 18 m.p.g. around town and 24 m.p.g. on the open road.
Swinging open the large rear doors allows your passengers to jump right into their first-class seats. Unlike minivan seats, which are compromised in order to allow interior reconfigurations, the R-Class has thick, leather-clad spaces for four posteriors to ride comfortably in back. Each of the four rear seats can be folded individually, providing up to 85 cubic feet of cargo space.
Not even a Mercedes-Benz comes without some flaws. On the minor side is the speed-control stalk mounted just above the turn signal, which can quite easily set the cruise when attempting to make a lane change. Finicky window switches took quite a bit of adjustment on the operator's part just to close them.
The excellent DVD system took three adult men 20 minutes to get an image on the rear monitors, including 10 minutes after cracking open the owner's manual. A lack of intuitiveness pervades the COMMAND system, making Bluetooth linking and navigation more difficult than it needs to be (why can't I use the provided number pad for addresses?).
Lastly, the handling of the vehicle is a bit ponderous when empty but does feel more evenly balanced with a few passengers aboard.
Even though the kids love this car, the R-Class is not your typical minivan substitute. The space aft of the third row is not quite as voluminous as a minivan's cargo hold. Large rear hinged doors are less kid-friendly than you'd think, especially in the parking lot of your local Target. It weighs a bit more than the average minivan, but most of that heft is transferred into sound deadening and luxury touches like thicker, more comfortable seats.
It may not be a minivan, but it is a very nice luxury car. What other vehicle provides luxury accommodations for six adults like the R-Class? Sure, some SUVs have a third row of seats, but they're not as comfortable as those found here. Your S-Class sedan looks great parked in the executive lot, but do you really want three colleagues cheek-to-cheek across the rear?
Sam Fiorani wishes to thank the Mercedes-Benz delivery driver who purchased a snow cone from his kids' charity sale while dropping off this particular test vehicle.
Wheelbase: 126.6 inches
Length: 203.0 inches
Width: 77.1 inches
Height: 65.2 inches
Curb weight: 4,949 pounds
Engine: V6, 3,498 c.c. DOHC 24-valve naturally aspirated
Horsepower: 268 horsepower @ 6,000 r.p.m.
Torque: 258 lb.-ft. @ 2,400-5,000 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 15/19
Base price: $50,240
As-tested price: $66,660 including $875 destination
Also consider: Chrysler Town & Country, Lexus LS460, Mercedes-Benz E350 wagon