Review and photos by Greg Wilson

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
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‘Crossover’ vehicles, like the Chrysler Pacifica and Ford Freestyle, are struggling with an identity crisis. Consumers aren’t exactly sure what they are: station wagon? SUV? 4X4? While crossovers typically offer the spaciousness of a station wagon, the higher ride height of an SUV, and the 3-row seating of a big SUV or minivan, they lack the sporty image and off-road ability of SUVs, the roominess of minivans, and the traditional family image of the station wagon. Luxury crossovers, like the Cadillac SRX, are even harder to pin down. In a class where image and prestige are important, luxury owners don’t want to be seen driving a vehicle that needs an explanation.

Which makes me wonder who exactly will buy Mercedes-Benz’ new 6-passenger luxury crossover vehicle, the 2006 R-Class. Would they be E-Class wagon owners who want something sportier? M-Class SUV owners who want something that drives more like a car? Or S-Class sedan buyers who want more seats and more cargo space? Or perhaps BMW and Audi owners looking for something different. Without a doubt, the new R-Class is a gutsy gamble for Mercedes-Benz.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
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Due to go on sale October 1st, 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class models will be priced somewhere between the M-Class sport utility vehicle and the E-Class station wagon, starting in the mid $60,000 range and probably topping out in the $80,000 or $90,000 range. There will also be an outrageous 510 horsepower R63 AMG model. R-Class models will be built in the same Alabama location as the M-Class sport utility vehicle.

Though priced below the E-Class, the R-Class is almost as long as the long-wheelbase S-Class sedan, and about 250 mm longer than the Cadillac SRX. In other words, it’s big. The R-Class has four large conventional swing-out doors, and three rows of seats with each row comprising of two individual bucket seats. Sliding second row seats make it fairly easy to get into the third row, and the third row seats will accomodate two full-sized adults.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
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Nifty options include flat-screen monitors built into the back of the front head restraints to provide entertainment for rear passengers. The system allows one passenger to watch a movie on one screen, while another passenger can play a video game on the second screen.

For cargo-carrying purposes, both second and third row individual seatbacks will fold flat, as will the right front passenger seat. Access at the rear is via a large, upwards-opening hatch. There’s less than 10 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row seats, but folding them down produces almost 35 cubic feet. With second and third row seatbacks folded down, there is 72 cubic feet of cargo space, or 3 cubic feet more than in an E-Class Wagon.

R350 models will be offered with a 268 horsepower 3.5 litre V6 (DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder) and R500 models will have a 302 horsepower 5.0 litre V8 (SOHC, 3 valves per cylinder). Both come with Mercedes’ new 7-speed automatic with manual Touch Shift function, and standard 4Matic all-wheel-drive which sends power in a 50/50 split to the front and rear wheels. The standard 4Matic AWD includes four-wheel traction control, and all R-Class models include Electronic Stability Control to help prevent understeer and oversteer.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
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For the R350, Mercedes-Benz Canada claims a 0 to 100 km/h time of 8.0 seconds and a preliminary average fuel economy number of 12.5 L/100 km (23 mpg Imperial). The R500 will do 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.7 seconds and will provide about 14.7 L/100 km (19 mpg Imperial) average fuel consumption using Premium gas. Acceleration is impressive for a vehicle that weighs in the neighbourhood of 5000 pounds.

The R-Class suspension is independent all around with double control arms in front and a new four-link setup at the rear. A four-wheel adaptive air suspension will be an option. 17-inch tires with alloys are standard on the R350 and 18-inch are standard on the R500. An optional AMG sport package upgrades those to 19-inch tires. Brakes are discs all around with ABS and emergency Brake Assist to help in panic stops.

For safety, the new R-Class features front and rear crumple zones and more than 60 percent of the body structure is formed from high-strength steel contributing to greater protection from the passenger cell in the event of a collision. As well, all R-Class models come with two-stage adaptive airbags for the driver and front passenger, curtain side airbags that span all three rows of seats, and adaptive belt tensioners and belt force limiters for all six seating positions. A rollover sensor deploys the curtain airbags if it detects an imminent rollover.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
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Standard equipment on the R350 includes MB Tex leather-like upholstery, leather steering wheel, maple wood trim, 4-speaker 80-watt stereo with MP3 plug-in, power driver and passenger seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and power windows. But surprisingly for a car in this price range, heated seats, CD player, and leather upholstery are optional.

And there are plenty of pricey options which can jack up the price substantially, such as Xenon headlamps, height-adjustable air suspension, 3-zone automatic climate control, large power Panoramic sunroof, Parktronic rear obstacle detector, power liftgate, heated 1st and 2nd row seats, DVD navigation system, keyless ignition, and a Harmon Kardon premium stereo.

In a brief 3-hour test-drive of an R500 model near Banff, Alberta, I found the cabin to be very quiet, and the seats very comfortable. There’s plenty of legroom for second row passengers, and many cupholders and storage spaces to store odds and ends. In general the R500’s roomy, bright interior is family-friendly.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
Click image to enlarge

Acceleration is smooth and powerful with the V8, and the 7-speed automatic shifts effortlessly. Of note is the new, smaller transmission lever on the column which frees up space on the centre console for cupholders. As in the M-Class, I found this lever easy to operate once you get used to its unconventional shift pattern.

The R500 cruises effortlessly on the highway, but curiously, the highway ride is a strange combination of floatiness and harshness with the standard suspension. I’ll have to drive this car again at a later date to confirm my initial experience.

Of course, it feels big because it is big, and city manoeuvring and parking will be a challenge – I’d recommend the optional rear Parktronic parking sensors to make parallel parking easier. Visibility is fairly good, and a rear wiper and defroster will certainly help in the wintertime. With its slightly higher ground clearance, full-time all-wheel-drive, and stability control, the R-Class should prove to be a competent all-weather vehicle.

There’s certainly a lot of luxury and utility available in the new R-Class, and it’s a very stylish vehicle, but convincing customers to pony up over $60,000 for a tall but racy 6-passenger station wagon will be the challenge for Mercedes’ sales people.

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