Sometimes the best vehicles for a particular purpose elude easy classification. Take the Mercedes-Benz R-Class; ever since the first time we encountered this vehicle, we've called it one of the best long-distance luxury cruisers on the market, and one of our top choices for keeping fatigue at bay when you have adult-size passengers and hundreds of miles to go before you sleep.
But despite the road-trip kudos, the R-Class's ambiguity has gotten in the way of success. With a silhouette that lands somewhere between a tall wagon, an SUV, and yes, a minivan, plus a very people-oriented interior with space to sprawl, the R should be a sales success—especially in the suburbs.
But the R-Class isn't a big seller; however nice the package, we suspect it also has left shoppers scratching their heads a bit. Is it Mercedes' minivan, or an exceptionally passenger-friendly utility vehicle?
Brawnier look curbs an existential crisis
To bring this luxury people-mover a little more up-to-date and take it just a little bit more, stylistically, in the direction of a utility vehicle, Mercedes-Benz has given the 2011 R-Class a slightly more upright front end, with a higher, arrow-edged hoodline and a higher, more prominent grille that's now a lot closer in appearance to those used in the M-Class and GL-Class utes. It's flanked with flowing headlamps that, to this reviewer's eyes, look like they have eyelids and are a little more organic, while the rear fascia has been changed and taillamps are lifted slightly. Inside, the dash top gets a new look, bright trim accents brighten it up a bit, and some of the other materials and color combinations are new. The optional Panorama sunroof remains a nice touch that lends a light, airy feel, too. Overall, it looks a little more buff on the outside, a little more smartly dressed inside.
And for those who need to accommodate adults in comfort, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class interior is downright smart. Those very long back doors allow easy access to the third row of this six- or seven-seater, and the standard arrangement in three rows of two bucket seats (with a middle seat available for the second row) makes sure everyone's taken care of. The second row slides fore and aft a few inches so that you can properly divvy out legroom between passengers, and the seatback in both rows adjusts for rake. The third row is a little smaller, a little flatter, but it's no punishment as there's still enough headroom (even, barely, for this 6'-6" beanpole). Getting in is a good deal easier than in some minivans as the second-row seats flip up and forward and the rear door openings are huge.
Unfortunately, those huge rear doors will still be a handicap for those who live in tighter city spaces. They're probably about 50 percent longer than the doors of most large sedans, and you won't be able to open them up all the way in most parallel-parking spots. With a rather stiff action, they also require a little too much muscle for smaller kids.
Seating that will win friends and influence people
Front and back and behind that, the R-Class has great seats. While those seats—the second-row ones especially—are great for passengers, the R-Class's setup isn't quite as good as a minivan's for cargo. The second and third rows fold to create a mostly flat space for large items, but they don't fold low into the floor as in most of today's vans. Also, folding the seats is a daunting, multi-step operation that in no way, as in many competitors, can be done with one arm still holding onto a kid or a stroller. Second-row headrests need to be manually removed, and the driver's seat has to be pushed forward a bit first in order for it all to work smoothly.
The 2011 Mercedes R-Class still comes in two models for the U.S.: an R350, with a 268-hp, 3.5-liter gasoline V-6, and the R350 Bluetec, with a 210-hp, 3.2-liter turbo-diesel V-6. Of the two, the Bluetec is the way to go for all but those who absolutely detest diesels. It's clean and economical, and only when just starting from a stop do you momentarily hear the customary diesel clatter. With 400 pound-feet of torque (compared to only 258 for the V-6), the diesel model has a strong, refined, relaxed feel and isn't flustered by hills or full loads (where V-6 models need to downshift more frequently).
Whichever the model, the seven-speed automatic transmission churns through the gears smoothly, and 4Matic all-wheel drive provides all-weather reassurance.
You'll likely go about 5 mpg farther per gallon with the Mercedes-Benz R350 Bluetec (EPA 18 mpg city, 24 highway) compared to the gasoline R350 (14/19). We averaged nearly 23 mpg in about 70 miles of driving in mixed conditions with the diesel, then just over 18 mpg over about 100 miles with the gas version.
Supple ride—and surprisingly economical with the Bluetec diesel
The 2011 R-Class's ride is creamy yet firm, and soaks up jittery back-road surfaces with aplomb. Even over the potholes and crumbled sections that are all too common in the New York City metro area, the R-Class maintained a feeling of composure and solidity. It's no coincidence or mistake that these vehicles are becoming increasingly popular with high-end livery companies.
You won't find the 5,000-pound-plus R-Class exciting to drive either, but it handles in a secure manner, with less pitching than taller or shorter SUVs. The steering has no real feel of the road and has a unnecessarily hefty feel at parking speeds, though especially in gasoline versions it's weighted nicely for highway ramps and back-road corners.
Next to some of the latest infotainment systems, with bright, large touch screens, Mercedes-Benz's COMAND system is beginning to feel dated. Though the menus can be navigated from either a control on the dash or from the steering wheel, the menus for some frequently accessed functions (like zooming in or out in a nav-system map) are less straightforward than they should be. Properly optioned, the R-Class includes an SD card slot, 4 GB of music storage, and an iPod interface along with harman kardon surround sound. Pricing hasn't yet been announced (and likely won't be substantially changed), but a long list of options and packages will continue to be offered, including an air suspension, adaptive damping, heated active front seats, and a rear-seat entertainment system.
Luxurious, secure, sensible
We'd venture to say that the solid-feeling R-Class is one of the safest vehicles in which to carry your family and friends. There are eight airbags on board, along with the Pre-Safe safety system and front active headrests. Newly available is a blind-spot system that alerts with a triangle in the rearview mirror, as well as a chime, when you use the turn signal and another vehicle is alongside.
The 2011 Mercedes R-Class—particularly the R350 Bluetec—is one of the most often overlooked alternatives on the market. Whether an upscale alternative to a minivan or a lower, more people-friendly alternative to a truckier ute, its comfort and accommodations are first-rate.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection