Mercedes-Benz R-Class – 2006 First Drive: One hundred years ago, Mercedes-Benz made its first production automobile designed for America. Today, with a modern-day fleet totaling a dozen different model lines, this German automaker calls its all-new 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class “the next American Mercedes.” Based on the Grand Sports Tourer concept car that’s been making rounds on the auto show circuit for a couple of years, the R-Class is grafted from the Mercedes-Benz M-Class platform, which has been retooled and significantly upgraded for 2006. But, as with Christian Dior, another upscale brand that’s been around for a century, there’s fashion and there’s haute couture. And, while we might take issue with claims by Mercedes-Benz officials that call it a “brand new class of vehicle,” we would agree that the all-new R-Class provides affluent consumers with a “brand new way for six adults to travel.”
This latest shining star in the Mercedes-Benz stable is built at the same Alabama assembly plant that produces the five-passenger M-Class sport utility, and though the R-Class only accommodates one more rider, it stretches the M-Class’s frame by more than a foot to accomplish a very different mission. Mercedes engineers have attempted to sew the performance attributes of a sport sedan, the adaptability of a luxury wagon, and the all-weather security of a SUV into the R-Class. Indeed, this new luxury crossover vehicle has a voluminous, well-appointed cabin; a Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system; and, with its second- and third-row seats folded flat, the R-Class accommodates 85 cubic feet of cargo.
Although pricing ranges from $48,000 to $55,000, the attractive R is styled and sized similar to its less expensive six-passenger cousin, the Chrysler Pacifica, which retails at close to half the R-Class’s average price. Additionally, the R-Class overlaps with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon, which seats up to seven passengers and has also been upgraded for 2006 with some of the same impressive technology contained in the R-Class. But, the newest Mercedes model is designed for a different red carpet and its main competitor is the Cadillac SRX, along with others coming soon from Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Lincoln.
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Europeans will get a diesel-powered 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class, while American choices are currently limited to two sprightly gas-powered versions – the R350 with a 268-horsepower V6 and the V8-powered R500 with 302 horsepower rumbling under the stubby hood. Both models come equipped with the world’s first production seven-speed automatic transmission, permanent 4MATIC all-wheel drive and stability control with traction control.
The R350, starting at $48,000, comes standard with an array of sophisticated features, such as leather seating, dual-zone climate control, a multifunctional steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, heated exterior mirrors and windshield washer nozzles, rain-sensing wipers, and tire-pressure monitoring. Choosing the top-level R500 – with prices beginning in the mid-$50s – yields not only the V8 engine, but also adds automatically-dimming rearview and exterior mirrors, extra chrome exterior trim, heated seats with upgraded leather, larger and more aggressive 255/55R18 tires (compared with 235/65R17s on the R350), and sumptuous velour floor mats.
Plentiful options can be added to either version of the R-Class. The Premium Package adds a panoramic sunroof, power liftgate and DVD navigation system, while the Comfort Package includes auto-dimming and power folding mirrors, a cargo cover and a cargo net. Bi-xenon headlights that swivel around corners are included in the Lighting Package, and the Entertainment Package adds a Harman/Kardon audio system with rear controls. A rear seat DVD entertainment system is a stand-alone option. Arriving after introduction is an AMG Sport Package with special 19-inch wheels and AMG-inspired interior and exterior styling cues. Other stand-alone options include an Airmatic air suspension with Active Damping, electronic parking assistance, sport seats upholstered in Alcantara and leather, rear air conditioning, Sirius satellite radio, and dual-screen DVD.
A limited-production Saks 5th Avenue special edition model will be available, with 750 designated for the U.S. market. Mercedes-Benz officials also report that a diesel version is being studied to determine whether it meets U.S. emissions regulations. A hot-rodded AMG version will debut for 2007, expected with a 6.2-liter V8 developing in excess of 500 horsepower.