Fleet News

Mercedes-Benz R-class

Mercedes-Benz

Review

YOU may have drivers on your fleet who, buried within them, have a deep-seated subconscious desire to drive around in a grand sports tourer.

They will not know it yet, but the appearance of the Mercedes-Benz R-class could trigger this dormant urge and send them to your door.

That’s because the R-class is the answer to a question not yet posed. It is an estate/MPV/saloon/hearse hybrid, with six seats, four-wheel drive, big engines and lots of space. Mercedes-Benz calls it a Grand Sports Tourer, or GST.

We were here with the Renault Vel Satis and Avantime a few years back – minus one seat – and nobody could work them out then.

But Mercedes-Benz has ploughed on with its own crossover vehicle and there is enough early evidence to suggest that, on a global basis at least, it will be a success.

That’s because the R-class is designed with the US in mind. Its size, six chairs, huge cupholders, blacked-out windows and drivetrain configuration suggest it is pitched at Americans tiring of SUVs. It is even built in the US, at the Tuscaloosa plant, home of the M-class.

Apparently, US buyers want four-wheel drive for the extra safety it brings and that is why this odd choice is the only option, rather than Mercedes-Benz’s more traditional rear-wheel drive set-up.

The fact is that the heavier, thirstier four-wheel drive system makes no sense at all, until you consider that the US market will take most of the volume, and it is a lot cheaper to build it on the M-class platform in the States rather than ship S- or E-class modules over from Europe.

Mercedes-Benz reckons on selling 1,800 in a full year in the UK with half of these being the diesel version, but by the very nature of the car this has to have been somewhat plucked out of thin air. True, there is nothing like it on the market but, after spending some time with the R, the multitude of abilities it has slowly dawn on you.

For a start, anything of this vastness is going to find some friends looking for ultimate carrying ability.

At more than five metres long and nearly two metres wide for the long wheelbase version, the R-class is a big hulking piece of metal and head-turning elegance is certainly not a strength.

But interior adaptability is. In the long-wheelbase version we drove, with the four rear seats doubled over to create a flattish floor, there is an incredible 2,385 litres of volume with a load length of 2.2 metres. The E-class estate, previously the leader in the space race, manages 1,910 litres.

Unfortunately, there are to be none of the clever load restraints and rails offered in the E-class, so stopping shopping bags from rolling about the cavernous interior could be a problem.

The seats all slide and fold simply to create more or less legroom depending on what you need, to the point that those of a leggy frame in the second row can have nearly a metre of legroom.

Three engines will be available: two petrol and one diesel. The most powerful is the 306bhp 5.0-litre V8, followed by the 272bhp 3.5-litre V6. Both are fantastically thirsty, tasked as they are with heaving 2.2 tonnes about and drivers will be lucky to see the right side of 20mpg. Even gentle driving got us nowhere near that claimed figure.

This should make the diesel the most popular choice, as is the case with most big luxury vehicles, and the R-class will be offered with the 224bhp 320 CDI unit, which it is claimed will do 30mpg. None were available at the launch but even hitting a real-world 25mpg will be a big improvement over the petrol cars.

The R-class will go on sale in spring next year and although prices are likely to be between £42,000 and £55,000, specifications are not yet finalised. Long-wheelbase models should be around £1,500 more expensive.

Behind the wheel

THERE are a couple of things which really are outstanding in the new R-class. One is how much legroom the front and middle seat passengers get, while the other is refinement.

Each occupant gets a comfortable armchair to sit in with the middle row also having a centre console with cupholders and controls for other interior functions, although life for the remotest passengers in the third row is less lavish and spacious. But, against the glorified deckchairs often inhabiting the third row in an MPV, these chairs are rather plush.

On a number of occasions, Mercedes-Benz executives quietly offered first-class air travel as a comparison to the R-class environment, perhaps hoping that this surreptitious suggestion would lead to a link being made between the two. In fact, life in the R-class, lack of air hostesses aside, is actually better.

The wood and metal trims are all of a good quality and build quality seems pretty beefy, which suggests that the American production arm of Mercedes-Benz might well be getting its act together after some ropey efforts with the old M-class.

Certainly, the refinement of the engines cannot be faulted and noise, vibration and harshness levels are exemplary.

It is so quiet at motorway speeds that even sitting in the back row you can have a civil chat with your pilot. The R500’s exhaust is tuned to bellow a little under acceleration, but on a light throttle both petrols are whispery and the seven-speed automatic gearbox slips between cogs with barely a whisper.

The R-class is to be retuned for European roads and tastes – the cars on the launch were all American-spec and executives were almost apologetic about only having cars set up for wafty, relaxed US cruising.

For Europe, it was promised, the cars will be more stiffly sprung, with sharper steering for a more dynamic drive, although quite what the point of that is I’m not sure.

The R-class is a big, quiet, comfortable cruiser and does not wallow or pitch under acceleration or braking, so I’m not quite sure what the changes will do, apart from reassuring Europeans they are not buying a barge. I don’t want a car of this size, weight and ambience to be able to bolt round a corner if it is at the expense of a soft ride.

Driving verdict

If I ever had the money, large family and distances to drive, I know I wouldn’t want an MPV. I know I also wouldn’t want an SUV. But Mercedes-Benz has surprised me with the R-class, as I think I might well want a GST.

Model: R320 CDI R350 R500
Max power (bhp): 224 272 306
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 377/1,600 258/2,400 339/2,700
Max speed (mph): 138 143 152
0-62mph (sec): 8.8 8.4 7.0
Fuel consumption (mpg): 30.4 24.6 21.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): N/A N/A N/A
On sale: Spring 2006
Prices (est): £42,000–£55,000

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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