First Drive

Mercedes-Benz's big MPV gets a fresh face

Part wagon, part minivan, part SUV, the R-Class plays the role of all three with class and comfort

HOBOKEN, NJ – Pinning down just what to call the Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a bit of a challenge as it combines elements of wagon, minivan and SUV, all combined to carry up to seven people in the lap of luxury for great distances. Mercedes-Benz calls it a "sports tourer" – to us it's an MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle) – but whatever you call it, it gets a fresh face for the 2011 model year.

The company refers to it as a new generation R-Class, but in reality it is a mild makeover of the multi-purpose vehicle that first came to market in 2006. Built on the W-251 chassis in the company’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama plant, the R-Class is but one of a very extensive line of five Mercedes SUVs and CUVs of various sizes, capacities and prices, spanning the $43,000-$155,000 price range.

According to Martin Rubenbauer, the senior product manager for the R-Class, the theme followed during its development was: "It is not the destination that counts, it is the journey,"

The styling sets the R-Class apart from the pack, particularly its sloping roofline. The low roof and long wheelbase combine to make it look like a station wagon on steroids or a minivan that has been lowered.

The front end has been comprehensively redesigned for 2011 with a more upright grille and taller hood, meant to impart a more muscular or masculine appearance. The hood, front fenders, grille surround, headlights and bumpers are all new. Mirrors and wheels are also new, as are the rear bumper cap, tail lights and exhaust outlets.

On the inside, two-tone treatments lend a fresh new look – quite a departure from the previous dark, interior.

The R-Class is produced in two wheelbases and sold in 87 markets around the world with a wide variety of powertrains. North America gets only the long-wheelbase version with a choice of gasoline or diesel V-6 engines displacing 3.5 and 3.0-litres respectively. The diesel variant is by far the most popular choice, comprising 75%-80% of sales.

The first- and second-row occupants are treated to the full-on luxury treatment with loads of leather and wood, but with lots of head, leg and shoulder room. The front doors and seats offer S-Class-size accommodations.

The long wheelbase also allows some of the widest rear doors in the business and provides remarkably easy access to a very roomy second row of seats, whether it be the captain's chair two-person arrangement or a three-person bench. There is limo-like legroom in the middle row with ample headroom for all but NBA centres.

The third row is relatively easy to access thanks to a complex flip/fold arrangement for the second row. There is enough head and leg room for a full size adult but smaller people or children would be much more comfortable.

The cargo space with the third row of seats in use is decent at 633 litres, although that's not enough room for luggage for seven. But with that third row folded there should be more than enough space for whatever the remaining five wish to carry.

With the second row folded as well, the cargo capacity jumps to an amazing 2,385 litres. This interior versatility in a vehicle that doesn't look like an SUV or wagon is where the R-Class stands apart.

But it still offers the all-season and off-road security of a full-time "4matic" all-wheel-drive system and a taller seating position than a sedan or wagon.

On the open road the R-Class is truly in its comfort zone. You could easily do the Halifax-Sydney or Halifax to Fredericton run without noticing how much time you have been at the wheel – or in a passenger seat. The long wheelbase, comfy seats, luxurious accommodations, well-controlled ride motions and lack of wind or road noise help wile away the hours.

You are reminded of the size and weight of this big vehicle if you start to tackle the twisties with too much attitude, but on the open road few can offer as much long-distance comfort.

I drove both gasoline and diesel variants through the surprisingly scenic and pleasant New Jersey countryside. The gasoline V-6 generates 272 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque and the diesel 211 horsepower and a stout 398 lb-ft of torque starting at only 1,600 rpm.

The turbocharged R350 BlueTec diesel is the clear winner thanks to its superior low-end grunt and ability to stretch out those fuel stops. Quiet, clean and thrifty, this is an engine well suited to a luxurious long-distance vehicle. Your bladder will need attention before the fuel tank does.

Mercedes has not released pricing details but the current diesel model commands only a $1,500 premium at $56,200. Both engines are paired with a revised seven-speed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.

The R-Class can hardly be considered a major player in the Canadian automotive scene. Mercedes moved slightly more than 300 last year compared to more than 1,200 of the GL-Class and 3,000 M-Class vehicles. But its distinct shape and upper class demeanour, combined with fresh new looks, might close that gap.

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