- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

Trying to describe the newest Mercedes is like trying to describe a potential new species. It’s easier to say what the new 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is not, rather than what it is.

Offered with V-6 and V-8 engines, the family-sized, luxurious R-Class is not a minivan, though, like a minivan, it has seats arranged in three rows. It’s not quite a sport utility vehicle, though it comes standard with full-time four-wheel drive and seating that positions passengers higher than if they were in a regular car.

The R-Class is not a typical station wagon, though its outer shape is more reminiscent of a wagon than anything else.

One thing is for sure: The R-Class is a pricey people hauler.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $48,775 for a V-6-powered R350. The R500 with V-8 starts at $56,275.

The R-Class uses the same platform, engines and automatic transmission as the new-generation Mercedes M-Class SUV that debuted earlier this year.

In anticipation of the R-Class, Mercedes officials got rid of the optional third-row seat in the M-Class, so the M-Class now can carry a maximum of five persons, with three of them on a rear bench seat.

In contrast, the R-Class comes standard with six individual seats, arranged two-by-two. The front seats in the test vehicle had cushions that were so sizable, they extended all the way to the back of my knees for excellent support.

There’s a spacious feel inside this vehicle, which is partly due to its nearly 17-foot length.

This R-Class is weighty. The test R500 weighed more than 4,800 pounds, which is at least 200 pounds more than an Odyssey and an SRX. So, depending on your perspective, the R500 can feel solid and stalwart or overdone, weightwise.

Mercedes-Benz officials claim a 6.5-second time for the R500 to travel from 0 to 60 mph. But the test R500 didn’t seem to rush forward in a sporty fashion. Rather, the vehicle responded with a smooth thrust.

The R-Class’s top engine, a 5.0-liter, single-overhead-cam V-8, already is used on other Mercedes vehicles, including the new M-Class. In the R-Class, it produces 302 horsepower and 339 foot-pounds of torque starting at 2,700 rpm and continuing to 4,750 rpm.

The base R-Class engine is the 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that’s also in the Mercedes SLK. In the R-Class, torque is a maximum 258 foot-pounds between 2,400 and 5,000 rpm.

One of the noteworthy technology items in the R-Class is a standard, seven-speed automatic transmission. It produces good low-rpm response and consistently smooth shifts.

Also found in the 2006 M-Class, this world’s first seven-speed transmission is designed to improve driver’s perception of power delivery while maximizing fuel economy.

Still, R-Class fuel economy isn’t exactly impressive. The test R500 had a rating of 13 miles per gallon in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway. During the test drive, I managed just under 15 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

But Cadillac’s SRX with V-8 is rated higher: 15/20-mpg.

In addition, premium fuel is recommended, meaning that filling the 25.1-gallon fuel tank can cost upwards of $75.

The V-6-powered R350 is more fuel-efficient, but its rating of 16/21 mpg is lower than the 20/28-mpg rating for the V-6-powered Honda Odyssey with fuel-saving multidisplacement technology.

As you’d expect in a Mercedes-Benz, the R-Class handles exceptionally well, with the driver hardly aware of the vehicle’s large size.

The front suspension’s upper and lower control arms with stabilizer bar and the rear suspension’s four-link configuration kept many road bumps from passengers, yet allowed the test R500 to remain firmly planted on the pavement.

And though I sat up some from the pavement, I never felt any of the tippiness that sometimes comes when driving a minivan aggressively.

But parking the R-Class was a bit of a problem. I could get the front end between the parking lines easily but the lengthy part of the vehicle behind the drivers seat was a bit askew.

It can be difficult to see what’s behind the R-Class as a driver backs up, so the optional parking sensors — retailing at $750 — are a good addition.

Watch the rear doors. They’re long, allowing easier entry into the R-Class. But their length also means they can bang into adjacent cars in parking spots.

Second-row seats in the R-Class can be clunky to fold down, and these seats need to be positioned correctly on their tracks ahead of time so they link properly with the folded-down third-row seats for a fully flat load floor.

The test vehicle had the optional Keyless Go feature that opens doors and starts the vehicle without the use of an ignition key. But each time I turned off the R-Class, there was an audible warning reminding me not to leave the Keyless Go fob inside the vehicle, and this grew tiring and irritating.

The R-Class comes with standard safety features including curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, electronic stability control and traction control.

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