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The refurbished and sportier 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class has been treated to a completely new look, with a new grille, hood, front fenders, bumpers, air inlets, and all front lamp units, using the Mercedes-Benz three-bar-and-star sports car grille in lieu of the former and smaller two-star-and-bar grille.
The hood is more steeply raked than the hood on the original. The bodysides have not had to be completely recontoured to fit with the new nose, so that it looks about the same from the sides, but the rear end also has been redone more crisply, with a new diffuser, new bumpers, exhaust tips, and LED fiber-optic taillamps.
The R-Class has had some difficulty finding buyers in the past because there is nothing else quite like it on the road (since the Chrysler Pacifica was cancelled). The R-Class has four hinged side doors, not sliding doors, and a hatch in back, so it's not a proper minivan. It has all wheel-drive, but it's not tall enough to be a called a real SUV, even though its off-road prowess is far better than most. And it's not shaped or sized like a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, either.
From its introduction, the company has referred to the R-Class as a sport-tourer, speced out for long-distance comfort, interior roominess, and, with that giant sunroof, a feeling of open space inside. Mercedes-Benz says that the R-Class is the roomiest vehicle in its entire passenger-car lineup for its overall size.
The R-Class is aimed to compete with the Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKT, Buick Enclave and Audi Q7 in one of the U.S. market's fastest-growing market segments. The R-Class is sold in 90 markets around the world, with a mix of small V6 gasoline engines, diesels, and 5.5-liter V8 engines (which were once offered here but were canceled due to lack of interest and high gasoline prices).
The U.S. market demands larger engines and larger interiors than Europe does, so we get the gasoline V6 and turbodiesel V6 engines. Both come with the 7-speed overdrive automatic and 4MATIC all wheel-drive, using the long-wheelbase chassis. Where some other R-Class markets get a short-wheelbase model, a small 3.0-liter gasoline engine, and as few as four seats, we get only the larger configuration, with a buyer's choice of six seats in a 2-2-2 layout or seven seats in a 2-3-2 layout. The six-seat layout offers an optional second-row console.
The 5000-pound R-Class uses welded steel unibody construction with front and rear subframes to mount the steering and suspension systems, with almost half the body weight in high-strength low-alloy steel. This is standard Mercedes-Benz practice on almost everything they make, because it's lighter, stronger, easier to build and easier repair than traditional body-on-frame vehicles.
The engineers have paid huge amounts of attention and money when it comes to making the front and rear suspensions and the large tires work together for a ride quality that is both taut and plush, absorbent and resistive, so that the occupants are not bothered by road irregularities and can just sit back and enjoy the view.
The 2011 R-Class has the sports-car grille with the central star, a set of three flowing lines from front to rear on the body, and a refreshed design in a thoroughly modern idiom. In the wind tunnel, it's slick enough to generate a 0.35 coefficient of drag, better than many lower-riding, rounded-off passenger cars and better by far than most of the SUVs against which it will compete. In many markets, things like PreSafe, adaptive headlamps, and the new intelligent lighting system (ILS), all class exclusives for the R-Class, will be standard or optional equipment.
Inside, the R-Class is a Mercedes-Benz through and through, but with some new features added, such as the central controller on the console for combined control of the sound system, navigation system, and telephone. There's a much more angular, purposeful instrument panel and dashboard layout. All of the dashtop panels in the R-Class will be anti-glare black, regardless of the interior color scheme (black, tan or gray). If there's a big negative in the R-Class's daily-use duties, it's the interior space, or lack thereof. Mercedes-Benz told us that the total interior space inside the R-Class is less than the C-Class station wagon we don't get in this market.
When loaded up to the top edge of the rear-seat backrests, the load compartment of the R-Class has a capacity of 15.2 cubic feet. The rear-seat backrests fold down in a 33/67 split or folded down completely to produce a flat load floor. Folding the second seat flat produces 42.2 cubic feet of load capacity, and all seats down yields a cargo capacity of 85 cubic feet, with a load compartment measuring 66 inches (5.5 feet) long. The load compartment can be hidden from sight thanks to the load compartment cover, while load-securing rings make it easier to fasten down items of luggage. There are also bag hooks, hooks in the tailgate trim, a 12-volt power outlet and a lamp at the side of the load compartment. Standard equipment also includes an additional 86-liter stowage compartment under the fold-up load compartment floor. The compartment is split into smaller partitions by a removable stowage tub. Optional features include the safety partition net as well as the power tailgate, which can be opened and closed at the push of a button, either from the driver's seat or by remote control.
The Mercedes-Benz R350 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine rated at 268 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with 258 foot-pounds of torque available from 2400 to 4500 rpm, and 87 percent of that maximum available as low as 1500 rpm, very useful for crawling, whether through traffic or off-road. Mercedes-Benz says the V6 will power the R-Class to 0-60 times of 8.0 seconds, with a top speed over 140 mph and an expected highway fuel economy number of 19 miles per gallon under the new EPA test procedures that produce generally lower numbers.
The diesel alternative is the BlueTec turbodiesel, sporting 210 horsepower with more than 400 foot-pounds of torque available from 1600 to 2400 rpm. The diesel, which uses an array of exhaust scrubbers and chemical injection systems using urea, is legal for sale in all 50 states.
The 7-speed automatic transmission that comes on all R-Class models gradually adapts to each driver's driving style and changes shift patterns accordingly. By analyzing speed versus throttle opening comparisons, the transmission will know whether the R-Class is going uphill or downhill and will either delay upshifts or hasten downshifts accordingly. And, unlike most SUV automatics, the transmission in the R-Class comes with a TouchShift feature for side-to-side manual control and a choice of Comfort or Sport shifting modes for the driver's choice of higher rpm shifting and harder shifts or lower rpm shifting and softer shifts.
The 4MATIC system has a 45/55 front/rear torque bias and uses a dual-disc clutch that acts as a locking center differential in difficult traction situations.
The R-Class normally rides on 19-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels shod with 235/50R19 all-season tires. Optional 20-inch, seven-spoke wheels, 8.5 inches front and 9.5 inches in the rear, wear 235/40R20 tires in front and 255/40R20 at the rear.
Traveling on the freeways, winding country roads, and village streets in upstate New York, we pushed the R-Class as hard as we dared, and it behaves more like a luxury sedan than a truck, quietly soaking up bumps and potholes and other imperfections, and it cruises easily with the 3.5-liter engine when traffic and space permit.
Acceleration is very good for a vehicle of this weight, and in seventh-gear overdrive, it just purrs along at about 1800 rpm at 75 mph. Steering feel is good, braking performance is exemplary, and the R-Class is very quick and easy to learn. Nothing tricky in the switches and controls, and ergonomics are excellent.
Towing capacity is just 3500 pounds, so the R-Class is not our first choice for towing.
The Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a lap-of-luxury touring vehicle for groups or families up to seven persons, fitted with a tried-and-true set of powertrain options, one of the world's most complete safety packages, and lots of head, should, elbow, hip and knee room. It's stylish, sleek and sporty, and if it's not the best vehicle in its class, we don't know what is.
Jim McCraw filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Hoboken, New Jersey.
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