Mercedes-Benz’s “Sleeper” Gets Updated

The Mercedes-Benz R350 BLUETEC.

I kind of feel sorry for the Mercedes-Benz R-Class for a couple of reasons. First, it hasn’t really sold very well since being introduced in 2005, as it’s kind of flown under the radar of the car buying public.

The second reason may actually explain the first one. The R always seemed as though it couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Officially, Mercedes refers to it as a crossover SUV, but they have two other crossovers in different sizes, the ML and the GL.

For a crossover, the R-Class is rather on the long side at over 203 inches. It’s really more like a minivan in terms of size and interior space, but it’s missing one of the key features that make minivans so handy: sliding side doors. Instead, the R has very long rear passenger doors, which could possibly cause havoc to neighboring cars when little Max and Dylan go scrambling out of the car in a moment of shopping mall zeal.

In reality, the R-Class is more like a station wagon. But a really big one, especially compared to the perfectly good Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon. So, the 2011 R350 gets a makeover but keeps its overall usefulness from the previous year, along with its slight identity crisis.

If you do need a large family-size vehicle, you could certainly do a lot worse than the R-Class. Very comfortable, very big, and loaded with comfort and safety features. Additionally, it’s available with Mercedes’ excellent Bluetec diesel engine which works really well in this 5,000 pound, all wheel drive people hauler. While the V6 gasoline engine is fine, the diesel provides great drivability along with superior fuel economy.

Forget what you’ve heard about diesel engines of the past. The Bluetec V6 produces low emissions, is reasonably quiet, and gives a nice kick to the car when acceleration is desired. While its horsepower rating of 210 looks kind of lackluster on paper, the torque figure of 400 lbs-ft means you could probably use the R350 to pull stumps out of the ground.

The high-tech diesel engine is hooked up to an advanced 7-speed automatic transmission, and power is routed to the wheels through Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic all wheel drive system. A bonus to the Bluetec engine is its EPA ratings of 16 city and 24 highway for a combined number of 20.

The example I recently drove had the Bluetec diesel and seating for six with individual buckets for the second row of passengers. You can also substitute a three-across bench that gives the R350 a true seven-passenger capacity. And even with all the seats in place there’s still a decent amount of luggage space at the very back. Start folding the seats down, and the cargo capacity becomes downright cavernous.

A tip of the hat goes to Mercedes-Benz’s engineers, as this rather large vehicle drives like a much smaller one. You couldn’t really call it nimble, but considering its length and width, it gets around much more swiftly than its size would suggest. Like most cars in the Mercedes line, a generous steering angle means a short turning radius and therefore, easy maneuvering in tight parking lots.

While functionality has always been a strong point of the R-Class, the looks never quite moved the excitement needle too much. With the redesign for 2011, the big Mercedes gets a much more aggressive front end, with the hood, fenders and headlights all receiving a restyle. The basic long, graceful shape of the vehicle remains, and the new looks are carried through to the taillights. It’s definitely a more striking vehicle compared to the wallflower the previous model was.

As you might expect, this is a premium ride and carries a somewhat premium price tag. Base price for the Bluetec diesel model is $52,615 including destination, though you can save a few bucks with the gasoline version for $51,115, meaning that the premium for the diesel engine is only $1,500. To me, it’s really worth it for the extra torque and improved fuel economy.

The R350 I drove was loaded up with options including a huge glass sunroof, navigation, rear seat entertainment system, a power lift-gate (operable via remote), three-zone automatic climate control, and an awesome sound system with a built-in connector for an iPod or MP3 player. All told, the total sticker price for this luxury family hauler was $67,275.

Mercedes-Benz still has high hopes for the R-Class. It may have plodded along for five years as a bit of a sleeper, but for those who value cargo space and a nice ride, it’s as wide awake as anything

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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