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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh
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Save for a few niche companies like Rolls-Royce and Ferrari, the latest trend is for automakers to pump a vehicle into every possible segment. Mercedes-Benz is no exception, and for 2006, it offers two all-new (to North America) models: the compact B-Class hatchback, and at the other end of the scale, the massive R-Class.
The R-Class is available as the 3.5-litre V6-powered R350 and the 5.0-litre V8-powered R500; two wheelbase lengths are available in Europe, but the North American market receives only the long-wheelbase model, with three rows of seats for six passengers. The company prefers to call it a “Grand Sports Tourer”, and the rear side doors open clamshell-style instead of sliding, but let’s be frank: this is Mercedes’ minivan.
Pricing starts at $64,400 for the R350 and $75,950 for the R500, but if you’re always running late for the children’s soccer practice, you can wait for the upcoming R63 AMG version, with 510 hp to get you from zero to 100 km/h in 5.0 seconds. Like the M-Class, the R350 and R500 are built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
There are a lot of standard features on the R350: 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, seven-speed automatic transmission with wheel-mounted Touch Shift buttons for manual mode, 17-inch alloy wheels, power front seats, dual-zone climate control, CD/MP3 stereo with eight speakers, rain-sensitive intermittent wipers, side and curtain airbags, rear privacy glass, integrated garage door opener, tire puncture warning system and alarm system. (The R500’s standard features add heated front seats, burl walnut wood trim and three-position front seat memory.)
My R350 tester was further embellished with a $17,630 “Mid Package”, which adds a long list of optional items: burl walnut wood trim, premium interior lighting, heated front and second-row seats, chrome accents on the grille, door handles, window sills and door mouldings, leather-and-wood steering wheel, Tele Aid emergency assistance, panorama roof, Harman/Kardon sound system with six-CD changer and rear audio controls, rear pop-out windows, and most notably, Parameter (speed-sensitive assist) Steering with Airmatic air suspension and Active Damping System.
Those last items turn an already-luxurious van into a vehicle that’s almost ridiculously comfortable. A button on the centre stack allows you to adjust the ride to automatic, sport or comfortable; in sport mode, everything tightens up for confident handling, but even though the comfort mode did a superb job of soaking up some of Toronto’s nastier potholes, the vehicle never felt wallowy. The Airmatic suspension automatically hunkers down by 20 mm when travelling over 112 km/h, or between 96 and 112 km/h for more than twenty seconds. Pushing a button on the dash will raise the vehicle by 50 mm, but it’s intended for low-speed travel over nasty roads; once you’re over 40 km/h, it automatically returns to its regular height.
The transmission also offers a comfort mode, taking off in second gear for gentler starts. Putting it into sport mode provides a snappier performance, and from there, you can also use a pair of wheel-mounted shifter buttons to row through the gears sequentially.
The 3.5-litre engine is smooth and quiet, but while it never feels overwhelmed, it’s got 2,225 kg (4,905 lbs) to move off the line; in tests conducted by the Automobile Journalists of Canada (AJAC), the R350 took 8.5 seconds to go from zero to 100 km/h, and 6.9 seconds to get from 80 km/h to 120 km/h. A sportscar it ain’t, but then, it doesn’t pretend to be. (AJAC also tested the braking performance, and recorded 100 km/h to zero in a respectable-for-its-size 40.05 metres.)
The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, standard on every model, is a true all-wheel-drive system, with 50/50 front-to-rear torque distribution under normal driving conditions. Should wheel slippage be detected, the system uses the ESP wheel sensors and brakes to seamlessly transfer torque from wheel-to-wheel, front to rear axle and side-to-side, sending as much as 100 per cent of torque to only one wheel if necessary. The system also includes downhill speed regulation and hill-start assist. In combined city and highway driving, I averaged 14.1 L/100 km (20 mpg Imp).
The R-Class is beautifully styled, and despite its size, it never looks ungainly; to my eye, its flowing lines resemble a steroid-enhanced version of the CLS-Class. The huge rear doors afford easy access to the second- and third-row seats, but their exaggerated length makes them difficult to open in tight quarters.
The second-row seats not only slide ahead, but move up and forward on their tracks to make it even easier to slip in behind them and get to the third row. They fold and tumble to form part of the flat cargo floor, but the little pictographs on the risers are a bit too simplistic, and many first-time users, like me, will be flummoxed by seats that will only bend in half until you learn the trick. The head restraints must also be removed before folding the seats flat, and while they can conveniently be left on the seat cushion when you do, the small release button makes them difficult to pull out.
The third row is probably the R-Class’ biggest surprise. In most similar vehicles, that third row is pretty much that in name only, requiring anyone over the age of ten to perch precariously on a rock-hard cushion with chin on knees. In the R-Class, the third row has as much legroom as many midsize cars’ back seats, and with enough clearance under the second-row seats that even big feet can slip under them for extra room. The seats themselves are just about as cozy as those in the second row, and with considerable travel in the reclining backrest. Only the very tallest adults will long for more space, and the optional panorama sunroof, which consists of a tilt-up front panel and spacious fixed rear panel, helps to alleviate any claustrophobia.
With all seats in place, the R-Class has a 48 cm-long cargo area; fold the rear seats flat for 148 cm of space, and fold and flip the second row to obtain a flat 210 cm for large items, along with a total of eight tie-down rings and two hooks.
The R-Class doesn’t “drive” as big as it is; it never feels ungainly, and its length is only really noticeable when you’re backing it up (Parktronic assist is an available option). It was easy for me to find a safe and comfortable position, although the lack of available power-adjustable pedals is surprising, especially given that they’re offered in corporate stablemates like the Dodge Caravan.
I especially like the COMAND (COckpit MANagement and Data) system, which consists of an LED screen in the centre stack, and allows access to several functions, including the stereo, compass, and if equipped, the telephone and navigation systems. It’s very easy and intuitive to use. It also flashes the standard “don’t-blame-me-if-you-look-here-and-not-at-the-road” warning each time the ignition is switched on, but then automatically leaves that screen after a few seconds and switches to whatever function you were last in. That’s much more convenient than with many other manufacturers, who require you to punch an “I accept” button even if it’s the twentieth time you’ve started the car that day.
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All controls are straightforward and simple to use, with just a few complaints: the front windshield defroster only has a high blower speed and cannot be modulated, and most oddly, the high beams will not work when the headlights are on in “automatic” mode. (The owner’s manual says they will, but they won’t, and a Mercedes-Benz Canada representative confirmed it.) You have to turn the headlight switch to “on” in order to have high beams, which seems to run counter to the idea of having automatic headlights in the first place. The windshield wipers’ intermittent mode is strictly a rain sensor, which works well in rain but not as efficiently in light snow.
All controls are backlit, including those in the rear doors; there are six cupholders and four bottle holders; and if you lift out the plastic piece that divides the front cupholders, there’s a bottle opener in the bottom of it.
The R-Class has a lot going for it; the question is, who will it reach? That’s a grey area and one that Mercedes-Benz might find difficult to answer.
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One problem the premium automakers have long faced is the “second car in the driveway” dilemma: the enthusiast buys a sports or luxury car, but must turn to another automaker for the more practical family hauler. Increasingly, the premium manufacturers are coming out with SUVs to park beside the two-seater, and most of them do fairly well for themselves.
But minivans might be another matter, and that’s where the R-Class, as good as it is, might have trouble finding its audience. As a luxo-liner for six adults, it’s one of the nicest offerings out there, but not that many people take five friends along wherever they go. Most people want minivans for hauling the children around, and for that, the R-Class may be too nice: if it’s just going to end up with Cheerios ground into the carpets and muddy boots on the seats, most parents will probably opt for a model from a conventional minivan manufacturer, most of which offer numerous features and comfortable surroundings (plus more practical sliding side doors) for less than half the price of the R-Class. You can call it a Grand Sports Tourer if you like, but most of us know better.
Technical Data: 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350
|Price as tested||$83,925 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 6-passenger full-size tall wagon|
|Engine||3.5-litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||268 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||258 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm|
|Tires||P235/65R17 all-season performance|
|Curb weight||2,225 kg (4,905 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||3215 mm (126.9 in.)|
|Length||5157 mm (203.0 in.)|
|Width||2168 mm (85.4 in.)|
|Height||1661 mm (65.4 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||266 litres (9.4 cu. ft.)(all seats up)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.6 L/100 km (19 mpg Imp)|
|Hwy: 10.6 L/100 km (27 mpg Imp)|
|Fuel type||Premium unleaded|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Assembly location||Tuscaloosa, Alabama|