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2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
by Mark Hacking

A modestly revised übervan

New York, NY—As far as enthusiast vehicles go, the Mercedes-Benz R-Class has never been a leading light for the German manufacturer. Even the first-generation R, which featured the R 63 AMG—the world’s fastest production minivan—was light on wattage compared to the company’s veritable alphabet of excitement: the CLS, the SL, the SLK, etc.

But in the minds of the product specialists, the argument must go something like this: Mercedes-Benz drivers have families, too. Sometimes, an S Class saloon or a Mercedes-Benz GL Class SUV is just not big enough, nor versatile enough. In other words, sometimes Mercedes-Benz drivers also happen to be minivan drivers.

Unfortunately for the manufacturer, there don’t seem to be enough of these people around. In America, the brand’s largest single market, only 2,825 examples were driven off the lot in 2009. The reasons behind this general lack of success could be myriad, but one factor seems to be that many people don’t want to drive anything that resembles a minivan anymore.

In 2007, Chrysler discontinued the Pacifica, a vehicle that was labelled a category-busting crossover and a “sports-tourer”, but was for all intents and purposes just another minivan with middling levels of performance, efficiency and excitement. The vehicle was meant to offer the convenience of a minivan, the handling of a sedan and the elevated seating position of an SUV, but it ended up being more of a compromise than anything else.

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review

The Pacifica lasted for just four model years and never came close to achieving its sales target of 100,000 models per year. It’s worth noting that this was the first vehicle developed jointly by the since-failed marriage of Chrysler and Daimler.

To be clear, I’m not equating the R-Class to the Pacifica—they aren’t based on the same platform and they’re very different mechanically. But on the surface, they’re definitely cut from the same cloth in that both are/were targeting drivers that want/wanted the convenience of a minivan without driving a minivan.

As this strategy didn’t work for the Pacifica and doesn’t seem to be working for the R-Class, there are rumours that the next-generation version of the latter will be radically different. Until then, though, Mercedes-Benz has decided to issue a mildly revised version of the R-Class—the vehicle tested during a recent trip to New Jersey and New York.

For the 2011 model year, the R-Class features a new hood, front fenders, headlights, front grille, front bumper, LED daytime running lights, side mirrors, taillights, exhaust tips and rear bumper. All of these changes combine to make the Mercedes a bit sharper in certain respects, but some redesign decisions—notably the optional, small, bug-eyed, front fog lights—are really suspect from an aesthetics standpoint. Depending on the market, there are also some new interior colours, alloy wheel choices and options package combinations.

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review

There are six different versions of the R-Class, three diesel models and three petrol-powered models. During the event, your truly had the chance to sample two Benzes in the middle of the range—the R 350 and the R 350 BlueTec. Both models featured the company’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive and the long-wheelbase chassis.

The R 350 is powered by a 3.5-litre V6 that generates 200 kW and 350 Nm of torque at 2400 rpm. This combination is sufficient to propel the Mercedes to 100 km/h from a dead start in 8.3 seconds—hardly neck-snapping. Meanwhile, the R 350 BlueTec is even pokier; its 3.0-litre V6 diesel produces 155 kW and 550 Nm of torque, but is a half-second slower to 100 km/h.

Of course, people don’t expect lightning-quick acceleration from the R-Class now that the AMG version has been discontinued, but these figures are less than inspiring, especially when you consider how much weight they could be carrying with all seven seating positions filled.

Of the two, despite the acceleration figures, the diesel felt slightly stronger and a bit more engaging. With its greater torque, the BlueTec would no doubt be better suited to driving around town and, of course, this version would travel much further on a single tank of fuel. Both versions are equipped with the latest example of Mercedes’ 7G-TONIC 7-speed automatic transmission; in both instances, the gears are spaced to optimize fuel efficiency rather than speed.

Driving around the countryside towards upstate New York, the R-Class proved to be not all that engaging. The steering is mushy and the ride and handling are largely uninspired; everything feels slow to react and the net effect is boredom-inducing. I never had the chance to drive the R 63 AMG, but I’ve heard glowing reviews from some people worthy of respect; it’s surprising that a performance vehicle could have sprung forth from such modest underpinnings.

Also on the negative side of the ledger: The interior looks and feels outdated and certainly not up to the standards of a vehicle in this price range, which hovers around the 50,000-euro mark for each model. (My guess is that the next-generation version will up the ante considerably in this respect.)

The centre console looks ungainly and is filled with myriad tiny buttons; other current Mercedes vehicles offer a much more techno-savvy rotary dial to control interior functions. Elsewhere, the surfaces feel hard and unforgiving, and there’s very little in the way of special features, something that cars such as the E-Class seem to offer in abundance.

Of course, the R-Class does have its merits. If you have seven people to transport, you certainly couldn’t rely on, say, an E-Class estate wagon. For sure, this “crossover” offers plenty of interior space, particularly the long-wheelbase models tested. The regular-wheelbase versions offer 1950 litres of cargo space, while the long-wheelbase models kick in an additional 435 litres. All variants feature a separate storage space under the cargo compartment floor, a very handy design.

The cabin also has an airy feel to it; riding in the middle row of seats, you gain the sense that the R-Class would be a great choice for shuttling business executives to and from the airport.

As one would expect, the Mercedes comes loaded with advanced safety features, making it a serious contender for extended family duties. The middle row can be fitted with no fewer than three child seats, so if you’ve got triplets, the R-Class is just the ticket. The Benz is also fitted with eight airbags—including window airbags for all three rows—active head restraints, a tire-pressure monitoring system and adaptive brake lights.

On the active safety front, the R-Class offers a blind spot monitoring system, electronic stability control, brake assist and the PRE-SAFE collision mitigation system. The 4MATIC versions, of course, come equipped with permanent all-wheel drive, as well as the 4ETS traction control system.

In terms of interior amenities, the R-Class comes standard with a 20-CD audio system with 8 speakers, auxiliary input connectors for iPods, a 5-inch colour display on the centre stack and Bluetooth connectivity. There are also a number of interior colour and trim options, wood and leather being the driving forces here, and a new 3D instrument panel gauge cluster.

All things considered, there aren’t very many exciting minivans on the market, so perhaps this review has been a bit heavy-handed. I suppose the thing to take into consideration is whether the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class offers comparable value to minivans from the likes of Toyota and Honda. I don’t question whether some people need a minivan—kids do need to attend football practise, after all—I just question whether this particular minivan is the smartest of choices.


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MERCEDES-BENZ R BREAKDOWN

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Road Test & Review
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Mercedes-Benz R Specs

280 CDI (RWD) : 3.0L DIESEL TURBO F/INJ - 7 SP AUTOMATIC G-TRONIC - 4D WAGON
Car Details
Make
MERCEDES-BENZ
Model
R
Variant
280 CDI (RWD)
Series
251 MY08
Year
2010
Body Type
4D WAGON
Seats
6
Engine Specifications
Engine Type
DIESEL TURBO F/INJ
Engine Size
3.0L
Cylinders
DIESEL TURBO V6
Max. Torque
440Nm @  1400rpm
Max. Power
140kW @  4000rpm
Pwr:Wgt Ratio
64.1W/kg
Bore & Stroke
83x92mm
Compression Ratio
17.7
Valve Gear
DUAL OVERHEAD CAM
Drivetrain Specifications
Transmission
7 SP AUTOMATIC G-TRONIC
Drive Type
REAR WHEEL DRIVE
Final Drive Ratio
0
Fuel Specifications
Fuel Type
DIESEL
Fuel Tank Capacity
80
Fuel Consumption (Combined)
8.9L / 100km
Weight & Measurement
Kerb Weight
2185
Gross Vehicle Weight
Not Provided
Height
1665mm
Length
4925mm
Width
1930mm
Ground Clearance
148mm
Towing Capacity
Brake:2100  Unbrake:750
Steering & Suspension
Steering Type
RACK & PINION - POWER ASSISTED
Turning Circle
11.7
Front Rim Size
8x18
Rear Rim Size
8x18
Front Tyres
255/55 R18
Rear Tyres
255/55 R18
Wheel Base
2980
Front Track
1643
Rear Track
1658
Front Brakes
DISC - VENTILATED
Rear Brakes
DISC
Standard Features
Comfort
Automatic Air Con / Climate Control, Power front seats, Rear seat enhancement pack
Control & Handling
Auto Stability Control, 18 Inch Alloy Wheels, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Electronic Stability Program
Driver
Cruise Control, Multi Function Steering Wheel, Parking Distance Control, Power Steering
Entertainment
CD with 6 CD Stacker, Radio CD with 8 Speakers
Exterior
Power Mirrors
Interior
Cloth Trim, Power Windows
Safety
Dual Airbag Package, Anti-lock Braking, Head Airbags, PreSafe, Side Airbags, Seatbelts - Pre-tensioners Front Seats
Security
Central Locking Remote Control
Optional Features
Comfort
Rear Air Conditioning, Power Sunroof
Control & Handling
Air Suspension, 19 Inch Alloy Wheels
Driver
Cruise Control Intelligent/Active, Satellite Navigation
Entertainment
Premium Sound System, Television
Exterior
Metallic Paint
Other
Service Interval
12 months /  25,000 kms
Warranty
36 months /  999,000 kms
VIN Plate Location
10-O-25
Country of Origin
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA