Minivan utility, Mercedes style

Courage isn’t the same as guaranteed success, though, and some of the German automaker’s efforts — such as its small, four-cylinder models — haven’t come off well.

But the company’s latest SUV, called the R-Class, should fit right in. It’s an enlarged version of the new M-Class SUV’s platform that provides room for three rows of seats. Useful or not, that third row is a requirement to get onto many SUV buyers’ shopping lists.

Like the M on which it’s based (Test Drive, Oct. 7), the R is more car than truck underneath, so it rides smoothly and handles well. Mercedes calls it a sports tourer, not an SUV, to emphasize its genteel attributes.

It has the swoopy styling that’s in vogue. In fact, it somewhat resembles its corporate cousin, Chrysler Pacifica, though the two share nothing but their parent, DaimlerChrysler.

If there’s inspiration in the R, it is that the vehicle seems minivan-handy, car-comfy and SUV stylish: win-win-win. Too bad that people won’t just accept and embrace minivans as the most useful vehicles ever. But image is so much of the automotive universe that it’s too much to expect.

For the privilege of wheeling around in an R, you’ll spend at least $49,000, perhaps $80,000-plus. Based on 115 miles, mainly around town, in a $66,000 R500, here’s what you’ll get for your dough.

•Style. R’s a looker, snagging the gaze of many folks who aren’t quite sure what it is, but who seem to like it regardless, judging by the high-signs, thumbs-ups and smiles. The only jarring visual note is the way the rear roof pillars simply plop down on the body instead of flowing into it.

•Room. Mercedes puts six seats in the R — three rows of two — so skip it if you need seven slots. But if six suits, you’ll find luxurious space for those in the first and second rows and pretty good, adult-size room in the third row.

•Really big back doors. They are a tremendous help getting people and things in and out if there’s room to swing them wide. And they make it remarkably easy to tilt and slide the second-row seats for access to the third row. But if you’re in a tight parking spot, the long doors are a drawback. You can’t open them wide enough to easily enter or exit. If you’re an urbanite whose parking universe consists of economy-car-size spaces, R will frustrate.

•Power. The R500 V-8 test vehicle was eager to jump and run, delivering exciting acceleration that should get you onto any freeway just fine. But it wasn’t especially smooth at low speeds. The drivetrain was a bit jerky going between coasting and lightly accelerating, as you’d do in city and suburban traffic.

•Unusual controls. R uses Mercedes-Benz’s confounding Comand system that makes some features, such as the stereo, harder to use than they should be. But at least the climate controls are separate from the Comand layout, so you can turn up the heat without hassle.

The stubby gear-selector switch is carried over from other Benzes into the R. Flick it up to go backward. Flick it down to go forward. Push the end of it to shift into park. It seems like an attempt to fix what wasn’t broken, but at least it’s no harder to use than a regular gearshift. It also leaves more cup holder space on the floor console than would be the case with a floor shifter.

•Iffy interior. Looks great; tasteful, elegant. But the surfaces are hard, which doesn’t invite your touch and conveys a cheapness.

•Quirky features. The CD changer hogs storage space instead of being mounted in the dashboard as most automakers do.

Optional six-ways-from-Sunday seat adjustments are poorly sited on the front edge of the seat and move mysterious things within the seat in ways you probably don’t care about.

Try them, in case you are one who can find the perfect setting, but you’re not missing much if you skip that feature.

Temperature controls were never just right in the test vehicle. On beautiful fall days, sunny and in the 70s, the climate control’s setting of 70 degrees often was a little too warm, and the next lower notch, marked 68, was too cool. Of course, those are days you should ride with the windows down. But drop the back windows on the R and, in the test vehicle at least, wind noise is a horrifying, animalistic yowling. Put the back windows up and it goes away, but to get a breeze that doesn’t buffet in almost any vehicle, you need to drop the rears as well as the fronts.

The R, all considered, seems like a great idea, executed more-or-less skillfully and priced pretty steeply.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

•What is it? Full-size, six-passenger SUV, available with V-6 (R 350) or V-8 (R 500) engine. Mercedes-Benz prefers to call it a sports tourer. Manufactured at Tuscaloosa, Ala.

•How soon? On sale since Sept. 14.

•How much? R 350 starts at $48,775, including $775 destination charge. R 500 starts at $56,275. R 500 with all options tops $80,000.

•Who’ll buy? Mercedes-Benz predicts an even split between men and women, says median annual household income will be north of $150,000, and buyers often will be socialites and those who started families late.

•How many? 20,000 to 30,000 per year, about 75% of them R 350s.

•What’s the drivetrain? R 350 has 3.5-liter V-6 rated 268 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 258 pounds-feet of torque at 2,400 rpm. R 500 has 5-liter V-8 rated 302 hp at 5,600 rpm, 339 lbs.-ft. at 2,700 rpm. Both models have seven-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive with four-wheel traction control.

•What’s the safety gear? Expected bags and belts plus front-seat, side-impact bags, three-row head-curtain bags, stability control, anti-lock brakes. Side-impact bag for second-row seats is optional.

•What’s the rest? Automatic climate control; AM/FM/CD/weather band stereo; MP3 receptacle; leather upholstery; power steering, brakes, windows, locks, mirrors, seats; adjustable steering column; outside mirror defrosters; cruise control.

•How big? Think Chevy Tahoe/Ford Expedition. R is 203 inches long, 75.7 inches wide, 65.4 inches tall on a 126.6-inch wheelbase.

Cargo space is listed as 15.3 cubic feet behind the third-row seats, 42.2 cubic feet when the third row is folded, 85 cubic feet when the second and third rows are folded.

Weight is listed as 4,841 pounds for R 350, 4,929 pounds for R 500.

•How thirsty? R 350 is rated 16 miles per gallon in town, 21 mpg on the highway, 18 in combined city-highway use. R 500 is rated 13/18/15 mpg. Trip computer in R 500 test vehicle showed 12 mpg in 115 mostly around-town miles.

Mercedes-Benz specifies premium gasoline. Regular is OK but you won’t get the advertised power.

•Overall: Very nice mix of SUV, sedan, minivan attributes, but at a very steep price and without a track record for reliability yet.


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