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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.
This is a very large vehicle, but the radical design and its sloping roof and sweeping front-to-rear lines tend to minimize the size and accent its sportiness at the same time. Up front, the R-Class uses the sports car grille theme with the large circled star in the grille, multi-element headlamps, a sporty upper and lower bumper look, and a fast-sloping hood and windshield to get to a drag coefficient of only 0.31, remarkably low for such a large vehicle.
The R-Class is long. It's 14 inches longer than the M-Class sport-utility and 9 inches longer than the Cadillac SRX. It's longer than the big Cadillac Escalade, by more than 4 inches. It's almost as wide as the Escalade, but only slightly taller than the SRX due to its deliberately low ride height and ground clearance. The rear side doors are very, very long, almost as long as those on a Maybach luxury sedan. That makes getting into and out of the second and third rows easy, but may cause problems in tight parking areas.
Depending on model and options, there are four different alloy wheel packages to choose from, in five-, seven- and ten-spoke designs. The AMG Sport package adds a whole new front end look, 19-inch AMG five-spoke wheels and tires, and a new rear treatment.
The R-Class was designed from the beginning to accommodate six average American adults, not four adults and two kids. The interior is absolutely cavernous, with gobs of room in all directions, including third-row headroom and legroom that's more than adequate for a 95th percentile (6-foot, 4-inch) man.
In order to pull off the "Grand Sport Tourer" idea, every one of the six bucket seats in the R-Class has its own cupholder, seat adjuster, armrest, ventilation, lighting. The first two rows can provide an independent choice of listening and viewing entertainment. The sound system is capable of playing tracks from any MP3 player, using the player to select, and there is a $299 option that will let you put your Apple iPod in the glovebox and play it through the sound system using steering wheel controls to select track and volume, with track and playlist data displayed on the COMAND screen.
The floor layout allows 16 cubic feet of cargo behind the third seat, 34 cubic feet of cargo with the third-row seats down, and 85 cubic feet of cargo space with the second row of bucket seats folded. Mercedes says cargo lengths approaching nine feet can be accommodated inside. Each of the second-row bucket seats can be moved through four inches of longitudinal adjustment, and each has a reclining seatback for long-distance touring comfort. The seat slider/folder mechanism is brilliant in its simplicity and ease of use. Adjusting the steering column is done manually on the R350; the R500 gets power tilt and telescope that micro-adjusts to any driver's favorite setup.
The new dashboard and instrument panel is easy to use and looks great. It's more chronometer-like in its layout and design, with more chrome ring decoration than any other Mercedes model. This new sport tourer has huge amounts of glass front, side and rear, and that makes for a very open and airy environment inside, whether you get the tan, grey, black, or black and Alcantara interior scheme.
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.
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