Mercedes-Benz R-Class - The Verdict

Once so conservative, Mercedes-Benz now seems to want to fill every niche in the market. David Wilkins assesses the latest effort

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Price: £41,425
Engine: 3.0 litre diesel
Performance: 0-62 mph in 8.8 seconds, 30.4 mpg
CO2: 253g/km:
Worth considering: Mercedes E-Class estate, Mercedes M-Class, Mercedes Viano

I discovered, when I folded down the third row of seats in the R-Class, that it has an enormous loading bay. That's just as well, because whenever I test any modern Mercedes, I bring a lot of baggage along with me.

Perhaps I'd better explain. Join me, if you will, in the spirit of the BBC's excellent Life on Mars, on a journey back in time to 1973. In Britain, Ted Heath is grappling unsuccessfully with roaring inflation, militant trade unions and an oil crisis. British Leyland has just launched the Austin Allegro. In that country, scarcely recognisable from today's perspective, Mercs are an expensive rarity.

Meanwhile, in Germany, where they are plentiful, a 10-year old boy develops a passion for these machines that borders on the obsessive. He dreams of one day owning a Mercedes-Benz, the finest car in the world.

That boy was me. The dream never died, and a quarter of a century later, in 1998, it was fulfilled. But I felt a bit cheated, because at about this time the Mercedes magic started to fade. No longer content with just building the best cars in the world, Daimler-Benz, as it then was, had embarked back in the Eighties on a diversification spree that took in, among other things, the giant electrical manufacturer AEG and investments in the aircraft manufacturers Fokker and Messerschmitt. Thankfully, Stan Boardman seems to have missed this opportunity to relaunch his career by incorporating post-1945 material into his act for the first time.

Chrysler was acquired in 1998 and Mercedes expanded its own range with odd stuff like Vaneos and Vitos; Smart and Maybach came along, too. All of this detracted, it seemed, from the job of making tough C, E and S-Class saloons that worked and carried on working for a very long time. For me, only the magnificent CLS stood out as something special.

So when our R-Class test car arrived, it waited in front of my house for a full 12 hours before I took it for a drive, a delay that would have been unthinkable with any Mercedes in the past.

And that's when I discovered that, while the R-Class doesn't look like a Merc, it's really rather good. That's down to the stuff that you can't see: its strong diesel engine, its superb seven-speed automatic gearbox and its air suspension. Much of this kit also features in other models, including the new S-Class.

Now that one does look like a proper Mercedes; we've got it booked for the Verdict and I'm hoping finally to shed some more of that baggage. It's a real burden and I've been carrying it for a long time.

Martin Ginnelly, area manager, New Ash Green, Kent
USUAL CAR: NISSAN ALMERA

First impression on seeing the R series was that it did not look like a Mercedes. It reminded me a little from the front of the Ford Scorpio - a bit bug eyed - quite different from what I was expecting. Inside it is roomy and can seat six people, with the rear two seats folding to give added cargo-space if needed. I found the driving position extremely comfortable. It can be adjusted effortlessly electrically. The dash layout is elegant but simple, the automatic shift change within easy reach on the steering column. I was expecting it to be cumbersome around country lanes, but was surprised to find it handled them with ease, and for a car of this size is very agile.

Tony Sterlini, database administrator, Chiswick
USUAL CAR: SKODA FABIA VRS

For such a large car it is really easy to manoeuvre around town, and has very light steering at low speeds and good visibility all round. Once out on faster roads the engine and gearbox prove an excellent combination. The automatic gearbox delivers the power from the powerful turbo-diesel engine smoothly and it never seems to run out of steam. Kick-down and gear selection is always spot on and the manual gear selector offers no advantage. On the wet roads of the test the car always felt very assured and stable under hard acceleration and was a pleasure to drive. The ride is very comfortable too, and you could imagine eating up long journeys with ease.

Bob Page & Lynda McGill, self-employed, Gloucestershire
USUAL CARS: HONDA CIVIC CTDI, DAEWOO MATIZ SE+

Notwithstanding the social and environmental issues of such a vehicle, we did enjoy some aspects of the R-Class; the quiet and luxurious accommodation, ease of driving, superb automatic transmission and adjustable suspension settings. It is powerful enough to sail up steep Cotswold hills and effortlessly cruise the motorway in grim conditions, but less confident on wet country roads and grassy surfaces. The interior was disappointingly small with less load-carrying potential than expected, a "reverse Tardis" effect. The plasticky dashboard, with its thoroughly distracting array didn't reflect the quality expected.

THE VERDICT

If you would like to take part, e-mail motoring@independent.co.uk or write to: The Verdict, Features Department, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.

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