CARMEL VALLEY, Calif. – 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.
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.
Nuts and Bolts
Though Mercedes-Benz chose to use off-the-shelf engines for the new 2006 R-Class, the German automaker put considerable effort into engineering each powerplant, with goals of both performance and efficiency in mind. The R350 gets a 3.5-liter V6, which produces 268 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. The R500 is motivated by a 5.0-liter V8 that claims 302 horsepower and 339 lb.-ft. of torque.
To achieve seemingly divergent goals of performance and efficiency, Mercedes employs a number of technologies to make the 3.5-liter V6 strong yet thrifty. For example, special flaps vary the length of air intake according to engine speed and load on the vehicle. At revolutions above 3,500 rpm, the flaps open to shorten the distance it takes the air to reach the combustion chambers and produce higher output for improved passing power. But at low engine speeds, the flaps remain closed, thereby increasing the distance air travels to the combustion chambers, in the process creating pressure waves that increase the torque potential for better off the line throttle response. Other attributes of the six-cylinder motor include lightweight aluminum crankcase and head construction, variable camshaft adjustment vapor recovery technology for cleaner emissions, and secondary air injection that is engineered with an “afterburning” process that reduces carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons while simultaneously helping to heat the catalytic converter more quickly for optimal performance.
With an impressive output of 302 horsepower and 339 lb.-ft. of torque, the 5.0-liter V8 is also tuned for Mercedes-quality performance, providing 90 percent of maximum twist at 2,000 rpm and peak torque between 2,700 and 4,750 rpm. In contrast, Cadillac’s SRX V8 develops 320 horsepower and 315 lb.-ft. of torque from a 4.6-liter engine.
The standard seven-speed automatic transmission is a major achievement in shifting, besting the current standard by one extra gear. That additional cog is not the only impressive innovation, however. Direct Shift, also found on the new M-Class, replaces the conventional shift lever on the console with a column-mounted lever that electronically determines the drive-by-wire transmission’s mode. If sporty manual control is desired, steering wheel buttons are available. With seven gears, the incremental steps are small but the total rev span is large, so Mercedes provides up to four-gear downshifts when more power is required. Score one here for Mercedes, as the SRX only offers a five-speed automatic.
Connected directly to the transmission, the permanent all-wheel-drive system splits torque 50:50 front to rear, and traction control is included in the 4ETS (Electronic Traction System). Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard inside the 17-, 18- or optional 19-inch wheels. Ventilated front rotors are used on both models, while the R500 also gets them in back.
The fully independent suspension features double-wishbone front and four-link rear configurations. The optional Airmatic air suspension automatically lowers ride height by 20mm at speeds over 77 mph to improve handling and reduce drag by up to three percent providing a boost to fuel economy, and can raise the R-Class by 50mm for better ground clearance. In addition to maintaining a constant ride height regardless of payload, the Airmatic suspension functions in parallel with the Adaptive Damping system that automatically varies the shock response according to road conditions, vehicle load and driving technique.
Distronic Cruise Control, which can automatically maintain a proper driving distance between the R-Class and traffic ahead, will be available in 2007.
An arching roofline that strives for coupe-like contours, similar to that on the sleek CLS four-door “coupe,” is the most noticeable styling feature of the new 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class. The visual trick in this case is the thickened D-pillar, which allows for smoothly tapered windows under a substantial-looking curved roof that indicates both the R’s six-passenger capacity and the potential for enthusiastic driving. The resulting wedge-shaped profile gives the R an impressive 0.31 coefficient of drag. Another pronounced exterior cue is the strong vertical line that starts in the lower air intake, splits the front bumper, and continues into the hood. Mercedes describes it as “arrow shaping.”
Other design elements exhibit evolutionary styling that also shows up in Mercedes-Benz sedans and coupes. Vertically situated headlights stretch rearward in the mildly flared front fenders. The orientation from front to rear mimics the “arrow shaping” in the hood and the intended progression of the roofline. Complex horizontal character lines that create concave and convex surfaces highlight both the sides of the vehicle and the merging points of the hood and front fenders. The driving design philosophy is motion, but it does not seem overplayed to combat the potential for wagon-inspired dullness.
If the R’s exterior resembles an arrow, you might imagine the upscale interior functions as the bow. The upper dash creates an unbroken horizontal plain, with the vertical center stack starting low within its own casing. The clear line of separation between the upper dash panel and the center stack sets up a front-to-rear flow of flat-surfaced storage consoles and controls that creates distinct seating areas. Materials such as wood, leather, and aluminum provide tactile and visual pleasure, as does the meticulous attention to detail throughout the cabin. Niggling complaints include distracting reflections from the windshield vent panel, and the less-appealing plastic used in the overhead console.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class’s interior is understated, but notably luxurious. The cabin is a versatile living room for six, with large side doors that have deep armrests. Great grab handles situated above all four entry locations assist in entry and exit, as well as separate door openers and large leather-covered door pulls. Forward visibility is excellent between the raked A-pillars and through the side windows, with large mirrors providing a good view to the sides and rear. Adding more light to the equation is a regular sunroof ($1,390) or an optional panoramic sunroof ($2,490 for 5.5 feet of glass and a 30-inch opening to let the sun shine in). Each seating position has its own cupholder, seat adjustments, armrests, air vents, lighting, and entertainment choices.
Stowage is ample with nets and nests, door pockets, and a huge two-tiered glove box with a six-disc CD changer (standard on the R500 and optional on the R350). The standard audio system comes with an AM/FM/weatherband radio and a single slot CD player, and optional satellite radio. An auxiliary port to plug MP3 devices into the car’s audio is standard, and there’s an optional kit to connect iPods. Of note is the attractive gauge cluster with beveled edges.
An inch longer than the company’s flagship S-Class sedan, the new Mercedes R trumps its immediate competitor by a far greater distance. Cadillac’s SRX stretches 195 inches, a full eight inches shorter than the R-Class. And, when the SRX houses its optional three rows of chairs, the cargo capacity measurement of 69.5 cubic feet is well below that of the R-Class’s 85 cubic feet.
First- and second-row legroom is better in the SRX, but the Caddy’s third-row legroom spec, at 24.2 inches, is much tighter than the 32.4 inches available in the rear of the Mercedes, which we found ample in terms of legroom but a tad short in head room for those over six feet in height.
In comparison to its stablemate, the Chrysler Pacifica sports tourer, Mercedes has sacrificed some first- and second-row legroom in the R-Class for an increase in third-row spaciousness. Another in-house competitor, the E-Class wagon, seats up to seven passengers, but only offers 68.9 cubic feet of cargo space.
Safety and Technology
In the event of a collision, several safety devices come to life in the 2006 Mercedes R-Class. Dual stage front airbags, side impact airbags for the front seats, and curtain airbags for all three rows are standard, while second-row side airbags are optionally available. Another optional feature is Neck-Pro, a head restraint system that activates during rear-end collisions. When the R-Class is hit from behind, these restraints move forward and upward to protect occupants from whiplash injuries. Another system called Pre-Safe prepares the vehicle for an imminent collision by pre-tensioning the seatbelts, electronically optimizing the seat positions, and closing the sunroof. Also onboard are a rollover sensor, a tire pressure monitor, and stability control.
One feature that provides both stability and comfort is the Adaptive Damping System. Solenoids in the shocks modify the rebound and compression settings when body roll is detected. The system is set for four stages– stage 1 features soft compression and rebound for comfort, stage 2 automatically works with stage 3 to adjust compression and rebound for maximum stability depending on road conditions and the way the R-Class is driven, and stage 4 hardens both for better cornering at speed. The system allows for some driver control, with selectable Auto, Sport, and Comfort modes.
We drove the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class over a course of 250 miles, starting on the famed Highway 1 coastal route from Carmel to Cambria, California. Beyond simply majestic in its beauty, this route brings perils, as the tarmac dances a tango with sea cliffs that loom high above the Pacific. It was along this stretch that we began our dance with the R500, appreciating the low-slung swath it cuts through the air, making it a steady partner, even in the wind.
More than amply powered, the R500 brings state-of-the-art logic for motoring in automatic mode, upshifting and downshifting almost seamlessly, magically providing the appropriate torque to assist with engine braking when called for, as well as being at the ready for passing no matter the cruising speed when we put our foot deep into the throttle.
Our afternoon drive in the R350 found us heading inland and northward on California’s bustling Highway 101, and ending the drive on one of the finest tight-and-twisty roads in America – the G15 – sealing the deal on the R-Class for us. Navigating the G15 in the R350, we used the steering wheel buttons to access crisp manual shifting, pleased by the V6 engine’s responsive throttle and throaty exhaust sound, the latter normally quelled when motoring in automatic mode. One complaint for us, however, was the placement of the manual shift controls, which are located on the backside of the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 positions. They are not easy to reach for the short-fingered and when the steering wheel is turned at hard angles they can be difficult to find.
Overall, however, the new 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class drives like a vehicle much smaller than its lengthy wheelbase, and manages to maneuver even the tightest corners easily, although it never feels light on its feet. The R350’s V6 is amply powered for us, and both models show the highest level of engineering savvy, in part through standard antilock brakes with Brake Assist that are well modulated and responsive whether you ease onto them or stomp on them.
The optional Airmatic suspension strikes a perfect blend between compliance and stiffness, airing up or down when called to action to reduce ride height on the highway or increase height up to three inches for rutted roads or over deep snow. Our favorite of the available settings was Sport mode, the stiffest and best controlled mix of damper and spring rates.
Heavily-weighted and twirled using a thick steering wheel, the rack-and-pinion steering is a delight to use for carving turns, and our preference was the hydraulically assisted speed-sensitive setup. The available Parameter electronic drive-by-wire steering system that promises full power assist for low-speed parking and turning, and higher effort for high-speed driving, was a tad lighter than we prefer, although it tightens appreciably at faster speeds.
Arriving in showrooms on October 1, 2005, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class successfully combines the attributes of an on-road sport-utility vehicle and a sporty performance sedan with an elegant, modern-day luxury wagon. Banking on trends that have moved upscale buyers of minivans into SUVs and, most recently, seen the migration of consumers from truck-based sport-utes to car-based crossovers, Mercedes believes the R-Class will appeal to as many as 30,000 ‘socialite empty nesters’ and ‘late forming families’ with two to three children. These successful Baby Boomers, aged 40-55 and equally split on gender, will likely have household incomes of more than $150,000, and will be well-educated trend setters and ‘early adopters’ who will find the cutting-edge style and utility of the new R-Class emotionally and rationally appealing.
Smart shoppers might point to the fact that the similarly-styled Chrysler Pacifica has more room in the most commonly used seats in the first and second rows, and is available fully loaded and discounted for nearly half the price of the R-Class. However, Mercedes-Benz marketers would assure you that converts and loyalists alike will not only buying the R-Class for luxury, but are also buying the cachet associated with the three-pointed star on the grille. For R-Class buyers, a Chrysler’s not going to cut it.
Mercedes expects that the luxury sports tourer segment will double over the next five years, and while it can be argued whether the R-Class creates a “brand new class of vehicle,” the all-new R350 and R500 are clearly ahead of an emerging class.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Mercedes R-Class
Price Range: $48,000 (R350); $55,500 (R500) (plus $775 destination charge for both models)
Engine Size and Type: 3.5-liter V6 (R350); 5.0-liter V8 (R500)
Engine Horsepower: 268 at 6,000 rpm (R350); 302 at 5,600 rpm (R500)
Engine Torque: 258 lb.-ft. between 2,400-5,000 rpm (R350); 339 lb.-ft. between 2,700-4,750 rpm (R500)
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Curb weight, lbs.: 4,861 (R350); 4,938 (R500)
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): Not yet rated
Wheelbase: 126.6 inches
Length: 203 inches
Width: 75.7 inches
Height: 65.2 inches
Head room: 39.8 inches (front w/ sunroof); 40.4 inches (2nd row); 37.2 inches (3rd row)
Leg room: 39.8 inches (front); 36.2 inches (2nd row); 32.4 inches (3rd row)
Max. Seating Capacity: Six
Max. Cargo Volume: 85 cubic feet
Max. Ground Clearance:
Competitors: Cadillac SRX, Chrysler Pacifica, Volvo XC90
Photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA