Mercedes' people-carrying semi SUV

The Mercedes-Benz R Class is what could probably be described as a crossover vehicle. That is, it crosses over accepted market segments. It's an estate car. It's a six-seater so it is part MPV. And it is a four-wheel-drive, so it is part SUV. The trouble is, this crossing of boundaries makes it difficult to pin-point who will want to buy one.

The R-class is certainly a novel vehicle and that is perhaps surprising from a manufacturer who it may be easy to pigeon-hole as being conservative. But, Mercedes will have had an eye very much on the United States when it designed this car.

In the USA lifestyle vehicles are the big thing. People want a car that suits the way they live (or sometimes the way they want to appear to live!). People want a 4x4 to project an all action outdoor image. Or a minivan (as they call MPVs) to in which to pack their tribe. The R-class has a bit of 4x4 and a bit of minivan about it so it should appeal. But it currently has one less seat than most MPVs - six instead of seven, although there are rumours of a seven seat version to come.

Mercedes-Benz R-Class

Despite its car-like looks the rear-most seats are a lot more useable than on, say, most multi-seat estate cars. But they are still not ideal, so when you walk up to the R-Class with six family or friends be prepared for a scramble to get the front or the middle row of seats!

It may not look as tall as most MPVs, but the R-Class is a big vehicle. It looks imposing and it is. Indeed my test car was the long wheelbase version which is more than five metres from nose to tail.

Mercedes-Benz R-class interior

Front and middle seat passengers have plenty of room. in the rear, the wheel arches mean the seats are close together but there is reasonable legroom and headroom. However the sweeping window line does make it a little enclosed. Otherwise the cabin is light and airy in style.

It may be a little non-traditional for a Mercedes-Benz but some traditions stay. Like the one column stalk that works the indicators, lights and wipers, leaving the right hand side free for the gearchange. Although there are seven gears, the gear selector is a very simple, offering just forward, reverse or park.

Should you want to shuffle the gears yourselves you use the discrete up and down switches on the back of the steering wheel - a little bit like the gear change paddles on a Formula One car. I found it helped considerably when traversing the country on twisty B roads. Choosing a lower gear for corners helped to settle the R-Class on the tarmac avoiding the 'floaty' feel of entering a corner on a trailing throttle.

Using the manual slection also gives a quicker responses when you press the accelerator. With drive selected there was sometimes just a slight delay between pressing the throttle and getting the response.

Mercedes-Benz R-Class interior

My test vehicle was the Mercedes-Benz R320 CDI L SE, with the L indicating this is the long wheelbase version. The name might suggest it is a 3.2-litre, but in reality it is a three-litre diesel. Power output is 224 hp with the usual beefy diesel torque, 510 Nm in fact.

On a daily commute which includes 70 mph dual carriageways, city streets and a few sections of country road, the R-class returned about 23 mpg. Without doubt it would produce much better figures on longer motorway journeys. And that is where this car really is at home. It is a superbly comfortable and relaxed cruiser that will eat up the miles.

Price is £40,117 for the CDI L with an extra £2,950 for the SE specification bringing the test car up to £43,067.

So who will buy one? In the States you can imagine any status conscious minivan driver would be very keen to snatch the keys as long as six seats sufficed.

In this country there will be some for whom the R-Class is perfect - families with four kids, or grandparents, or friends and hangers-on. You could also see how it could appeal to businesses who need to transport up to five people in style and reasonable comfort.
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