The new Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a bit like the platypus, the fur-covered, duck-billed, egg-laying mammal. It combines aspects of other vehicles without becoming one of them.
It looks like a very large station wagon, with four conventional opening doors and a top-hinged one-piece tailgate, but it's not a traditional wagon. It has permanent, computer-controlled all-wheel drive, but it's not an SUV. It has three rows of two bucket seats, kind of like a minivan, but it's not a minivan. It's a brand-new entry in a class the company calls grand sports touring, and there's nothing else quite like it on the market today.
Fortunately, the R-Class is better looking than a platypus. Its radically sloping roof and sweeping lines help disguise its considerable size. Longer than a Cadillac Escalade, the R-Class is truly cavernous inside and comfortably accommodates six tall adults in six well-accommodated bucket seats. It comes loaded with passive safety features designed to protect occupants in the event of an accident.
It's quiet and comfortable on the highway, and surprisingly responsive on winding roads. Initially, there will be only two models, the R350 with V6 power and the R500 with V8 power. The R350 is quite responsive, while the R500 is downright fast. Both are packed with all-wheel drive, electronic stability control and other features designed to help the driver maintain control.
The R350 ($48,000) is equipped with the V6 and seven-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, four-wheel traction control, ABS, EBD, ESP, load-leveling rear suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels and tires. And it comes loaded with leather seating, birdseye maple wood trim, eight-way power seats, dual-zone air conditioning, the COMAND instrument panel and control system, folding second- and third-row bucket seats, rain-sensing wipers, multi-function steering wheel, eight-speaker AM/FM/WB/CD sound system, integrated garage door opener, and six cupholders.
The R500 ($55,500) adds the V8 engine, 18-inch wheels and 255/50 tires, speed-sensitive steering, six-disc CD changer, heated seats, burl walnut wood trim, three-driver memory system for seats, mirrors and steering column, tilt/telescope steering column, TeleAid security system, additional chrome exterior trim and tinted front and side glass.
The safety package is comprehensive. Every R-Class comes with frontal, side-impact, and side curtain air bags for all three rows. It has earned five-star crash rating in all directions. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), an electronic stability program (ESP), and all-wheel drive are all standard.
Option packages include Trim ($1750), Lighting ($890), Heating ($1190), Comfort ($1350), Entertainment ($1190), Sunroof ($1490), Airmatic air suspension ($1400), Panoramic Roof ($2390) Multicontour seats ($780), and AMG Sport ($4500). Individual options include Sirius Satellite Radio, Parktronic sonar warning, Keyless Go, heated seats, second-row video entertainment ($3000), second-row console, a power liftgate operated by the key fob, and three-zone climate control ($1050). The Premium package ($5,400) includes the Panorama roof (a five-and-a-half-foot glass section in two huge panels with electric shades for each), the Entertainment package, a power liftgate, DVD navigation and, on the R350, TeleAid.
In about a year, the R63 AMG performance version, with a 500-horsepower 6.3-liter V8 engine, will be added to the lineup, along with a new 5.5-liter four-valve gasoline V8 version replacing the 5.0-liter. And in 2007, Mercedes-Benz expects to add the R320, a 3.2-liter turbodiesel engine version, to the lineup, and an R400, a 4.0-liter V8 diesel for Europe. The factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, will also produce a short-wheelbase version, nine inches shorter, for the rest of the world, as well as right-hand-drive versions.