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The new Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a bit like the platypus, the fur-covered, duck-billed, egg-laying mammal. It combines aspects of other vehicles without becoming one of them.
It looks like a very large station wagon, with four conventional opening doors and a top-hinged one-piece tailgate, but it's not a traditional wagon. It has permanent, computer-controlled all-wheel drive, but it's not an SUV. It has three rows of two bucket seats, kind of like a minivan, but it's not a minivan. It's a brand-new entry in a class the company calls grand sports touring, and there's nothing else quite like it on the market today.
Fortunately, the R-Class is better looking than a platypus. Its radically sloping roof and sweeping lines help disguise its considerable size. Longer than a Cadillac Escalade, the R-Class is truly cavernous inside and comfortably accommodates six tall adults in six well-accommodated bucket seats. It comes loaded with passive safety features designed to protect occupants in the event of an accident.
It's quiet and comfortable on the highway, and surprisingly responsive on winding roads. Initially, there will be only two models, the R350 with V6 power and the R500 with V8 power. The R350 is quite responsive, while the R500 is downright fast. Both are packed with all-wheel drive, electronic stability control and other features designed to help the driver maintain control.
The R500 ($55,500) adds the V8 engine, 18-inch wheels and 255/50 tires, speed-sensitive steering, six-disc CD changer, heated seats, burl walnut wood trim, three-driver memory system for seats, mirrors and steering column, tilt/telescope steering column, TeleAid security system, additional chrome exterior trim and tinted front and side glass.
The safety package is comprehensive. Every R-Class comes with frontal, side-impact, and side curtain air bags for all three rows. It has earned five-star crash rating in all directions. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), an electronic stability program (ESP), and all-wheel drive are all standard.
Option packages include Trim ($1750), Lighting ($890), Heating ($1190), Comfort ($1350), Entertainment ($1190), Sunroof ($1490), Airmatic air suspension ($1400), Panoramic Roof ($2390) Multicontour seats ($780), and AMG Sport ($4500). Individual options include Sirius Satellite Radio, Parktronic sonar warning, Keyless Go, heated seats, second-row video entertainment ($3000), second-row console, a power liftgate operated by the key fob, and three-zone climate control ($1050). The Premium package ($5,400) includes the Panorama roof (a five-and-a-half-foot glass section in two huge panels with electric shades for each), the Entertainment package, a power liftgate, DVD navigation and, on the R350, TeleAid.
In about a year, the R63 AMG performance version, with a 500-horsepower 6.3-liter V8 engine, will be added to the lineup, along with a new 5.5-liter four-valve gasoline V8 version replacing the 5.0-liter. And in 2007, Mercedes-Benz expects to add the R320, a 3.2-liter turbodiesel engine version, to the lineup, and an R400, a 4.0-liter V8 diesel for Europe. The factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will also produce a short-wheelbase version, nine inches shorter, for the rest of the world, as well as right-hand-drive versions.
The new Mercedes-Benz R-Class does not drive like a truck. For starters, it's quick: The R500 is capable of 0-60 mph sprint times of 6.5 seconds and the R350 will do it in 7.8. Those are impressive numbers given the weight of the R-Class (topping 4,800 pounds for the R500). The engines take advantage of the seven-speed transmission, shifting to gain the full benefit of the heart of the torque curve. Relax and the R500 hums along at 80 mph at about 2500 rpm in seventh-gear overdrive. With this kind of acceleration and passing performance, it's more than competitive with most wagons and SUVs.
We drove both the V6 and V8 versions in central California. The V6-powered R350 is more than adequate for most driving, chauffeuring, and touring duties, but the V8 is a good deal more satisfying overall to drive, with more reserve power for passing and pulling, and rated to tow 2500 pounds.
The seven-speed is the best automatic transmission currently on the market, smooth, quiet and extremely flexible and useable. Mercedes has abandoned the conventional console-mounted floor shifter in favor of a tiny stalk on the right side of the steering column, supplemented by paddles on the back of the steering wheel. Shifting either way is a breeze. (It's similar to the 2006 Mercedes M-Class SUV, which shares a great number of parts and systems with the R-Class and is built in the same Alabama plant.)
The all-wheel-drive system works in the background whether you're on pavement, dirt, snow or ice, and keeps the car planted and pointed properly. It's engineered in such a way as to keep entry and exit height nice and low, not like a typical SUV.
We found the huge brakes to be especially reassuring on twisty, blind-corner country roads, where just a tiny dab of pedal brings the speed down very swiftly.
Massive amounts of high-strength steel are used in the body shell of the welded unibody R-Class, more than 65 percent of the body, which makes the body extremely stiff and lets the independent front and rear suspension do their jobs quietly and without interference.
The steering on the V6 is a bit more direct and more fun to drive than the speed-sensitive system used on the V8 version. Regardless of engine choice, the steering isn't overly assisted, and is nicely weighted at the wheel. While this new R-Class is a long way from a sports car at this size and weight, it is remarkably responsive and nimble.
At highway cruising speeds, the R-Class is extremely well isolated from the outside world, enabling easy conversation between and among all the passengers.
Classified as a truck and coming in over 6000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating, the Mercedes R-Class is eligible for the federal tax break for businesses that still on the books, but that's certainly not the only reason to buy or lease one.
The all-new 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class models are indeed grand sport tourers. All six seats are window seats. No center seating here. They feature lots of interior layout flexibility for people and cargo, and plenty of torque for hauling. They're big but garageable. The R500 is not a fuel economy champion at a projected 21 mpg on the highway, it seems to have more overall utility than one of the giant SUVs, and gets better mileage than most of them. It's very cool to look at, and even more fun to drive whenever and wherever there's lots to see and enjoy.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from California.