Road Test: Mercedes-Benz R-Class

Has Mercedes lost the plot? Its latest effort, the R-class, is a 4x4 behemoth intended for the US market. John Simister takes to the wheel and imagines it ruling the roost on the school run
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Model: Mercedes-Benz R500 LWB
Price: £55,000 approx (range starts at about £42,000), on sale spring 2006
Engine: 2,497cc, V8 cylinders, 24 valves, 306bhp at 5,600rpm, 339lb ft at 2,700-4,750rpm
Transmission: seven-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 152mph, 0 to 60mph in 6.8 seconds, 21.2mpg official average
CO2: 322g/km

Yes, it's the Mercedes-Benz R&B show, the best way to convince the car-buying public that today's M-B is a hip, happening company. It now has a staggering 15 individual model ranges and has undergone an extraordinary shift in design from understatedly elegant to max-attack attention-grabbing. Why else would the forthcoming S-class look like it was created in the SsangYong design studio's weekend off?

R&B. We've already met the B, more specifically the B-class compact MPV. It's an enlarged and more extrovert-looking A-class, but Mercedes is marketing it as a "sports tourer" and has given it an elevated price tag to match. That said, the futility of this approach quickly became clear as Mercedes reduced B-class prices almost as soon as the car went on sale here.

And now the R part. This is the new and vast R-class, a car of a new genre according to its creators. It's a GST. What might GST stand for? German Sports Tourer? Maybe, except that the R-class is built in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on the same lines as the M-class SUV. German Standard Time? That's time on board the R-class, whose extremities are so far apart that they could be in different time zones for a measurable period during a transcontinental expedition. Giant Sports Tourer? Undoubtedly; the long-wheelbase version, aimed at Americans but also to be sold here, is longer even than an S-class at 16ft 11in, and the shorter, Europe-only version exceeds 16ft.

But it's only when you stand by an R-class, and then climb up into it, that its magnitude hits home. From a distance it looks merely large, because its vast wheels give it the same proportions as lesser cars and the nose is surprisingly stubby. Within this magnitude are housed six seats, four of which would do credit to a Lear jet, the rearmost two of which are merely ample. Affluent families can luxuriate for hours, but it's best if that affluence extends to sending luxurious and bulky luggage onwards by separate means because they certainly won't get six people's-worth of Louis Vuitton in the boot.

Mercedes-Benz says there is no direct rival for this car, and it's hard to disagree. The "Sports Tourer" tag might sit uneasily on the B-class, but with suitable aggrandisement it works here. This is not so much a crossover as the middle of an automotive Venn diagram. It has parts of everything potentially large: 4x4, estate car, MPV, luxury saloon. It shares about 30 per cent of its parts with the M-class 4x4, including the engine, the simpler version of the M-class's transmission and the design, if not the detail, of the suspension, but the structure and platform are unique.

As for the way it looks, it's a squashed-then-stretched, Xeroxed-up B-class. That's how Mercedes is clinging on to this Sports Tourer notion. Look at the similarities: a rising waistline, scooped-out sides capped by a steeply-rising ridge, a curved-but-pointed window outline, a bulging bonnet rising above low-set, almost-retro front wings. Clearly both cars emerged from the same set of magic markers.

Inside, though, the similarity ends. The dashboards are quite different, straight and slightly severe in the B-class, voluptuously curved in the R-class. There's a king-size glovebox and king-size cupholders whose central divider doubles as a bottle-opener. A giant storage box sits between the front seats, another one (optional and removable) sits between the mid-row seats. The latter can be home to a DVD player with screens on the backs of the front seats' headrests.

A vast, glass, panoramic sun-roof is another option, but the R-class experience would be incomplete without it. It's an experience most interestingly witnessed from the rearmost seats, because you sit higher and can see forward and upward through the roof for a heightened, aeroplanesque feeling of cruising with the sky.

The Giant Sports Tourer seems large and unwieldy in tight city streets and narrow lanes, but out in the open it starts to make more sense (remember it's primarily for Americans).

As for the four-wheel-drive system, it's not intended for off-road use although it would cope up to a point. It's there because northern-state Americans are coming to regard four-wheel drive as a must-have: they perceive it as a safety benefit and seemingly don't trust traction control. And the customer, of course, is always right.

Engines, for both the US and Europe, are a 3.5-litre V6 (R350) with 272bhp and a five-litre V8 (R500) with 306bhp. We Europeans will also get a 3.2-litre V6 turbodiesel (R320 CDI) with 224bhp but a hefty 376lb ft of torque, which is likely to account for half of UK sales. All send their outputs through a seven-speed automatic gearbox controlled by a delightfully simple selector on the steering column. Drive, Neutral, Reverse and Park are its only functions; you can manually select the gears (if you don't get confused by their abundance) by means of horizontal rocker switches on the backs of the steering wheel spokes, but it's hard to remember which direction is up and which down.

Another annoying, and typically-Mercedes, feature is that if you select, say, third gear, the transmission treats that as "up to and including third" instead of third gear only. If you're going to allow manual selection, then make it properly manual: it's particularly annoying in the R350, whose engine can't really cope with its 2.2-tonne burden so the transmission is forever shifting up and down the gears, sometime jerkily. The R500 is much more capable, with considerable pace (and a thirst to match), a powerful V8 burble and enough torque to let the transmission stay in one gear over a wide speed range.

Will Europeans take to this big Benz? It's the sort of car few people really need but quite a lot might want, especially as it does much of what 4x4s do in the real world yet might attract a little less opprobrium. Until we see two or three taking up an entire school frontage.

The rivals

MAYBACH 57, £252,880

Mercedes-Benz's rival to the best that Rolls-Royce has to offer has a twin-turbo V12 and whisper-quiet pace. It also has club-class seats, lavish trimmings, and a huge price tag but, strangely enough, little in the way of covetability.

PORSCHE CAYENNE S, £43,540

Porsche's 4x4 has proved a surprising success, especially in the US. It is fast, looks credibly Porsche-like, and has plenty of room. On the negative side the ride quality is poor if you haven't gone for the optional air suspension.

RANGE ROVER V8 HSE, £54,495

The V8 HSE is unfeasibly wieldy and comfortable for an enormous 4x4 with massive off-road ability, and it looks good in the bargain. It is also more conceptually honest than the Range Rover Sport, its curious stable-mate.

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