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.
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.
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.