2006 Mercedes R-Class

Big Benz – The R-Class is a whole lot of a very good thing. Perhaps too much.

By Steve Siler

Mercedes-Benz has been on sort of a product blitz during the past couple of years. We have the new M-Class SUV, the scrumptious CLS Coupe/sedan thingy, a smattering of enhanced C-Class sedans and wagons and now, the new R-Class…um…uh…vehicle.

The almond-eyed R-Class doesn’t really fit into an existing segment. While the terrific M-Class is a much enhanced incarnation of the lux-u-vee and the CLS is a sexy four-seater; both are relatively easy to understand at first glance. But taking a look at the R-Class doesn’t give much away. Is it an SUV? A minivan? A wagon? Good question.

The answer: sort of all of those things. Like a ute, it offers standard all-wheel drive. Many liken its swoopy styling, however, to a minivan due to the sloping nose, upright tailgate and long, long body (it’s five inches longer than a Chevrolet Tahoe!). To me, it appears more like a big, three-row wagon with a tall roof. Sure, minivans also have three rows, tall roofs and low ride heights, but the R-Class feels much more like a car when you drive it—hence the wagon comparison. Mercedes calls it a “crossover,” and in the automobile world, the term may never have been more fitting.

Does Mercedes-Benz need a car like this? That’s another good question. Indeed, what sets the R apart from the M-Class SUV with which it shares its platform is its three-row, six-passenger (2+2+2) layout. Is that what the world is clamoring for? Not that we’ve heard. But I will say, you’d be hard pressed to find any vehicle that seats so many in such comfort that isn’t a stretched Town Car limousine with a track lighting and a minibar.

The R-Class shares its interior design language with the new M-Class ute—a very good thing indeed—but with its long (VERY long) rear doors and lower ride height, the low-slung R is easier to get in and out of. The first row is decadent, with excellent front seats that adjust in at least eight ways and that face a clear, classy dashboard design highlighted by tight panel fits and gorgeous wood, aluminum and chrome trim. The second row features individual bucket seats that recline and offer enough legroom for RuPaul to cross her legs, while the third row—which also reclines—is a two-seat bench with generous shoulder room and legroom but not quite enough for your ten-gallon hat.

Our tester came with a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and a full-length panoramic moonroof that exposes both first and second row passengers to the sun (or moon) light when powered rearward. Materials proved to be outstanding; anyone that’s griped about the quality of Mercedes’ recent products should poke their heads inside the R-Class before they bitch again.

Power is provided by the same V-6 and V-8 engines as in the M-Class (and E-Class, and CLK-Class, and…), with roughly the same pleasing result. That said, it may be worth upgrading from the R350 if you have the extra $7500, since the R500 not only adds the gruntier 5.0-liter V-8 but also 18” wheels, heated seats a six-disc CD changer and more. Not powerful enough? The recently introduced R63 AMG is powered by a mammoth V-8 that produces a Viper-like 503 horsepower and exclusive interior trim.

With the optional air suspension, both ride and handling are stellar, more like an E-Class wagon than any minivan I can think of. That said, at roughly 17 feet in length and two-and-half tons, it’s a bit big-feeling around town and rather excessive for anyone that’s not resort-hopping with friends every weekend.

We can’t help but think that for most of us, the much-cheaper (and just as satisfying to drive) M-Class SUV may be a better match. With that said, if you need more room for people and cargo, this elegant, spacious cruiser is perfect.

Specs:

  • Base price range (including destination): $48,775—$56,275,
  • Fuel economy, city/hwy: 16/21 (V-6), 13/18 (V-8)

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