– Tons of interior room
– Willing V6 engine
– Well-proportioned looks
– Very expensive
– Too long for parking spaces
– Awful rearward visibility
Mercedes-Benz had built a reputation over the last century for building over-engineered and exquisite luxury cars. But, starting from the 1980s, smaller but still desirable models started to join the line-up. After that, they started sticking a finger into every possible market niche, from mini-cars to people carriers. And our R-Class tester is the culmination of this strategy. It overlaps into so many market niches that no one seems to be know how to categorise it.
The R-Class claims to be a 4WD, luxury sedan and even some sporty car all rolled into one. It comes with a range of engines, starting from the V6-powered R350, going up to the V8-motivated R500, and topping off the line with the overblown R63 AMG. The R even comes in a standard wheelbase and a long wheelbase model, though they both look remarkably similar, and only the long model is officially offered locally. We trundled around in a DaimlerChrysler-supplied R350 long-wheelbase 4Matic model for 2 days.
The R350 and its brethren are built as pure luxury transportation, and this becomes apparent as soon as you step inside one of these things. But from the outside, it looks like a sporty wagon, with big rims, a swooping profile and four forward-opening doors. Move closer and you realise that the vehicle is bigger than you initially thought-much bigger. The long-wheelbase model is longer than many 4WDs, and we thought those were big. The roofline and ground clearance are lower though, so it is more stable than a 4WD by default. Mercedes-Benz stylists deserve credit for making such an ungainly vehicle look so well-proportioned.
Stepping inside is simply a matter of having the optional Keyless-Go key in your pocket. Then the doors unlock automatically as you pull the handle, and then you press the dash-mounted button to start the car. The interior is a mishmash of shapes, with hints of wood and metal sprinkled about, and all very aesthetically pleasing for the most part. Every conceivable surface is covered by materials soft to the touch, be it well-stitched leather or high-quality vinyl, which is a welcome relief from the cheap car interiors we’ve been subjected to for too long. The two front seats are relative sofas, with big adjustable headrests and armrests, while the real surprise is that the second row has two “captain’s chairs” instead of the traditional bench. These seats are fairly well-bolstered for this type of vehicle, and the legroom is all-round excellent, as is the headroom. There is also the dreaded third row bench seat for two more people which actually has a limited but reasonable amount of legroom. Access to this third row is still for the athletic only, but it is easier than many 4WDs because of the large rear-door opening. Luggage space is limited to a big suitcase with the third row up, but it can be expanded to fit an elephant once the third row is folded down, or two elephants if you fold down the second row too, all done with the flick of a few manual levers. This warehouse worth of space is easily accessed through the electrically-powered tailgate that magically opens and closes at the press of a button. By now we’ve already made up our minds that this is a minivan — a luxuriously upscale minivan, but a minivan nonetheless.
No new-age Mercedes is complete without a bunch of new-age gadgetry, though nowadays it mostly depends on how many boxes you tick on the options list at the showroom. Our expensive R350 L was not top-of-the-range, but it did have a fair amount of options included. Our top favourite is the Keyless-Go system that never requires your key to come out of your pocket to operate the vehicle, and our close second-favourite is the tinted glass panoramic roof that runs the whole length of the roof and converts the car into a greenhouse, though there are no provisions to open any part of it like a traditional sunroof.. Only the front seats are electric, as are the mirrors which fold automatically when the car is turned off. Our tester didn’t have the optional COMAND navigation system or the rear-seat DVD screen, so we instead got to play with the simple-looking upgraded Harman-Kardon CD-MP3 stereo system, which delivers excellent sound quality and clarity through 11 speakers, although note that the base model gets 8 speakers. The digital air-conditioning unit is easy to manipulate, and has multiple vents and separate controls for the rear, but it can be a bit overwhelmed in the afternoon thanks to all the glass area around the car. Other amenities include cup-holders and storage spaces for all seating positions, a ton of front, side and curtain airbags, and netted retractable sun visors for the rear side windows.
The 3.5-litre 272 hp V6 engine moves the portly R350 with fair authority and refinement, and is surprisingly adequate thanks to its respectable 350 Nm of torque peaking at a low 2400 rpm. Combined with the invisibly-smooth seven-speed automatic, the motor always manages to stay in its torque band under full throttle, even though the throttle pedal itself feels rather lifeless. Gear selection is done with a unique indicator-style stalk, which takes getting used to, especially since the cruise control also has its own separate stalk. We never did figure out how to shift into sport mode in the two short days we drove this thing, but we found out later that there are buttons behind the steering wheel for manual shifting. Leaving the shifter in D, we sprinted from zero to 100 kph in a respectable 8.5 seconds, and we don’t doubt the claimed top speed of 230 kph. However, fuel economy is far from stellar, matching any V6-powered midsize 4WDs in consumption. The fuel tank is generous though, so long-range cruising is a breeze. Frankly, going for the V8 power of an R500 would be a waste of money in this market niche.
Mercedes-Benz touts the R-Class as a sports tourer, but its handling character is more M-Class than E-Class. It should be, given that the platform is based on the M-Class, including its standard 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. A computer-controlled air suspension system is optional, but our tester did not have it, so we were treated to a standard ride that involved smooth highway cruising with a hint of choppiness over deep recesses on the road, and a healthy amount of body roll when taking corners with zeal. Mind you, there was no shortage of cornering traction from the juicy 235/65 tyres wrapping the 17-inch rims, aided by the 4Matic system, but the tyres start squealing and understeer pops up very early in the game. Overall handling is far from sports-car-like, but it does handle well on its standard suspension for a vehicle this massive. On the upside, we did drive over a few slight dunes littering some desert roads, and the R350 turned out to be as capable as a soft-roader like the BMW X3, even though the R was not designed for such duty. Brakes are excellent, as expected of a Mercedes, and quick stops are short and uneventful.
Driven like it was meant to be driven, the R350 is a refined gentleman, peacefully ferrying passengers along highways in quiet isolation at 100 kph, but wind noise joins the tea party at anything above 120 kph. It can be a handful to drive on city streets though, and we soon became aware of the fact that we were driving a land yacht around when we had to navigate through tight alleys with cars double-parked all over the place. The front and rear sensors did help in this case, but they were of little use when we attempted lane changes on crowded multi-lane roads thanks to rear-view mirrors that cut off right where a car is hiding, while identifying objects through the obscured back window becomes a guessing game. Parking is easy thanks to the beeping sensors, but our long-wheelbase machine is a little too long for many parking lot spaces.
The very pricey R-Class is the ultimate luxury transportation for the well-heeled family man who doesn’t want to give up his Mercedes for a minivan. Our long R350L offers tons of space, power and luxury for cross-country excursions, but it is in no way the “sports tourer” that Merc marketers are claiming it to be, even with bigger motors under the bonnet. We appreciate the R for what it is, and nothing more. We say skip the larger motors, buy the R350 for family matters, and an SLK55 for occasional sporting fun.