Although it has never really found a loyal following in North America, Mercedes-Benz's R-Class serves as the brand's multi-passenger flagship. With room for the whole family, this executive express crossover-wagon-minivan has long made a great vehicle in which to be hauled around in luxury.
With its doors wide open, Mercedes-Benz brought us within miles of the land of chauffeur-driven vehicles, New York, to sample the revised 2011 edition of its R-Class. Fine, we were in Hoboken, New Jersey, just up the block from the old Erie Lackawanna Railroad Terminal, where we swear we saw the ghost of Frank Sinatra.
But did Frank sing his praises about Mercedes' R-Class?
Never a vehicle to walk out the local Mercedes-Benz dealer's showroom in big numbers, it is still an intriguing piece of kit and one we think Sinatra would have liked.
In a crowded neighborhood
The luxury crossover segment is heating up as most buyers stray away from more established SUV offerings like the Cadillac Escalade and Infiniti QX56. For buyers who want that sort of boxy utility, Mercedes-Benz offers its hot-selling GL-Class.
But the R-Class squares up against the Audi Q7 and BMW X5, not to mention the new dark horse Lincoln MKT. For the first time we can recall, Mercedes-Benz officials tell us that they have Buick on their radar: The Enclave is a natural rival.
Nose job and more
The 2011 R-Class had a bit of nip and tuck treatment in the off-season. Receiving both a nose job and a butt-lift, the R now boasts the brand's more modern style. With a newly redesigned expanse of sheetmetal forward of the A-pillar, the R350 now appears to be from the same family as the rest of the cars in the M-B stable.
In addition to the grille, the front end features daylight running lights or new chrome-ringed fog lamps in the grille's lower bout. Overall, the appearance is newer, wider, and, in M-B speak, more assertive. In the rear, the exhaust finishers are integrated into the rear fascia. Among the safety features, Mercedes-Benz Blind-spot assist, Pre-Safe and Neck-Pro front seat head restraints.
Beyond that, the R-Class features the same profile as seen in last year's car. The R is available in Europe as a short and long wheelbase car. In North America, it will only be available as a long-wheelbase model. All US models will be 4Matic-equipped, with Mercedes-Benz's all-wheel-drive system.
As a long wheelbase vehicle, the R350 and R350 BlueTEC are identical save for BlueTEC badging on the sides and the rear. With its stylized two-box design, it cuts an imposing shape (because, truth be told, it is big) that we have even seen adopted by many forward thinking New York City-based limousine companies. Goodbye Town Car, hello R-Class.
Configurable as a four, five, six or seven-passenger vehicle, it can be equipped with center consoles between the middle row of seats, as well as a back row that reclines. The amount of cargo space depends only on how many seats you fold forward, or order in the first place. R-Class vehicles ordered without third-row seating are equipped with an under-floor storage area. Overall capacity is 15.2-cubic feet with all three rows in the upright position. Fold them flat and capacity tops out at 85-cubic feet. The only complaints we heard from fellow scribes were comments of how wide the rear doors swing out, and the lack of a sliding door. Add those and then you are talking minivan, a dreaded word in the world of luxury.
And luxury abounds inside. An AMG sport package with custom seats and trim is one way to go. A refreshed interior with aluminum and chrome highlights and extravagant wood trim dresses up the cabin. The seating configuration is good, although it does take several tries and adjustments to finally get the seats to fold forward for the flat-floor cargo area to finally be realized.
A mover or shaker?
North American models of the R-Class offer a choice of two different types of engines both mated to the same 4Matic all-wheel drive system.
Leading off is the 3.5-liter V6 gas engine producing 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque. EPA estimates rate this engine at 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway, hardly impressive figures.
But order the BlueTEC diesel-powered version of the R350 and you end up with the who's-your-daddy of crossovers, producing a mere 210 horsepower but 400 lb-ft. of tree stump-pulling torque. Turbocharged and intercooled, it produces the bulk of its power in the 1,200-2,400 rpm range, while the gas shows its oomph further up the power band in the 2,400-5,000 rpm neighborhood. In BlueTEC trim, look for numbers in the 18/24 mpg range.
Both R350 engines share the seven-speed automatic transmission. Do-it-yourselfers can row the tranny with plastic steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The R 350 rides on a suspension comprised of upper and lower control arms, coil springs, shocks and stabilizer bar in front and a load-leveling air suspension out back.
We found the hydraulic-assisted, rack and pinion steering to give very good road feel, especially given the vehicle's bulk. With a fully loaded curb weight of 5,280 pounds, the BlueTEC achieves 0-60 mph in 8.6 seconds. Shave off 231 pounds for the gas-powered version, and you'll see a 0.6 sec improvement.
According to M-B, the 4Matic permanent all wheel drive is where perfect traction lives for all conditions. After pushing the R-Class through the winding roads of Westchester County, we were impressed at how, despite its size, the R never displayed any untoward behavior.
We would only imagine it shows the same during winter months - or with a cackling celebutante aboard as it navigates the streets of Manhattan.
Why you would buy it:
As far as crossovers go, it's one of the slickest of the bunch - and it looks about a million times better than before.
Why you wouldn't:
You're holding out for a Town & Country or you think the Town Car is the ultimate luxury transport device.
Leftlane's bottom line:
Starting at over $50,000, this crossover vehicle is clearly not for everyone, as sales have indicated in the past.
Built to Mercedes-Benz standards in Alabama, it is clearly a road-runner meant for road trips, soccer games, home improvement store trips and, of course, bouncing between meetings and to-dos in Manhattan. In many ways a traditional definition of a Mercedes-Benz, the R-Class benefits from a modest refresh that should keep it relatively relevant through the rest of its product cycle.
Pricing to be determined
Words and photos by Mark Elias.