Not quite an SUV, not quite a minivan and not quite a wagon -- but with attributes of all three -- the R-Class is what Mercedes-Benz calls a "sports tourer." It's lower and sleeker than an SUV or minivan but larger and more commodious than a wagon. It handles more like a car than an SUV, thanks to its car-like construction.

The R-Class is designed to appeal to affluent buyers who want the convenience of an SUV or minivan but don’t want to sacrifice style or good driving dynamics.

In addition to the V6-powered R350 and V8-powered R500 models that debuted last year, two new versions join the line for 2007. Their engines are diametrically opposed in purpose: A new, 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder diesel motivates the R320 CDI and should return excellent fuel economy, while the hand-built 6.3-liter V8 of the new R63 AMG cranks out a lofty 507 hp for scintillating performance and abysmal fuel economy.

The new diesel engine uses special technology (called common-rail direct-injection) to maximize power and efficiency and minimize the stink and smoke associated with older diesel engines. While its output is modest at 221 hp, the engine provides ample torque at 398 pound-feet. This enables strong low-end power that you can feel while driving around town. While EPA estimates for the R320 CDI were not released as of publication time, a 201-hp version of the same engine in the 2006 E-Class is rated at 27 mpg city/37 mpg highway.

For those who favor sheer power over fuel efficiency, the new R63 AMG packs a high-revving 6.3-liter V8 engine that generates 507 hp, enough force to propel this large vehicle to 60 mph in about five seconds. EPA fuel economy ratings had also not been issued for this model by publication time, but it will most certainly command a gas-guzzler tax and likely average below 16 mpg.

The AMG V8 is mated to a new, seven-speed automatic transmission that includes a "sport" mode for more-aggressive shifting. It can be taken through the gears manually via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. The R63 AMG also comes with styling tweaks that include specific front and rear bumpers, front grille, flared fenders, side skirts, taillights and chrome exhaust pipes. The interior is upgraded with leather sport seats, a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, stainless-steel pedals and door-sill trim as well as unique instrument-panel graphics.

The R350 and R500 continue unchanged for 2007. The former comes powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces 268 hp. The latter is fitted with a 5.0-liter V8 that features twin spark plugs and three valves per cylinder, and it generates 302 hp. Both engines are fitted to a seven-speed automatic transmission with touch-shift "manual" capability that is operated via an electronic gear selector mounted on the steering column. Expect fuel economy similar to last year's EPA ratings of 16 mpg city/21 mpg highway for the R350 and 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway for the R500.

Mercedes-Benz's full-time all-wheel-drive system is standard on all R-Class models and includes traction control for added grip on slick roads or broken pavement.

A four-wheel independent suspension with a double-wishbone design up front and a four-link array at the rear provides handling qualities superior to those of most SUVs and minivans. A four-wheel electronic air suspension with adaptive damping ($1,400 with the R350 and $1,200 with the R500) delivers a smoother, more-controlled ride. It's standard on the R63 AMG and includes revised damping and AMG shock absorbers for a sportier feel.

Four-wheel disc antilock brakes with brake assist are standard, as is Mercedes-Benz's electronic stability control. The R350 rides on 17-inch wheels and tires, while the R500 comes with 18-inch rims and rubber. An AMG Sport Package for the R350 and R500 ($4,500 on the R350 and $4,200 on the R500) includes the R63 AMG’s 19-inch wheels and tires, along with various trim items.

With a roomy passenger cabin that seats six adults in three rows of seats, Mercedes claims the R-Class has best-in-class third-row legroom. The rear seats can fold flat to expand cargo capacity.

Wood and brushed-aluminum accents are used throughout the interior. A tall center stack on the dashboard houses a large LCD display for the vehicle's standard CD stereo system and optional telephone and navigation systems. Side-curtain airbags that span all three seating rows are standard; rollover sensors can take up slack in the seatbelts and deploy the side-curtain airbags if the vehicle rolls over.

Standard features are plentiful, and opulent options are available. But aside from adaptive, high-intensity headlamps and fog lights that help illuminate the road around curves ($890, including headlamp washers), many of the latest high-tech features are not yet represented.

Is the R-Class for You?

Buy this Vehicle if - You’re looking for a stylish yet practical luxury alternative to a wagon, minivan or SUV that blends attributes of all three; you need seating for up to six and the ability to haul bulky items; you’re looking for good fuel economy in a large vehicle, in which case the new, diesel-powered R320 CDI is worth considering.

Keep Looking if - The superior fuel efficiency and handling dynamics of a wagon are more to your liking; you need off-road ruggedness and the ability to haul/tow heavy loads; a well-equipped minivan would suit your needs and your ego won’t mind you driving one; the perceived brand clout of a Mercedes-Benz isn’t worth the considerable premium it commands; fuel efficiency is a concern and you won’t drive a diesel.

Who Fits? - Six adults fit comfortably in the spacious and well-trimmed interior, though getting into the third row can be difficult; a low ride height makes for easy entry in the first two rows; adjustable brake/accelerator pedals aren’t available to accommodate shorter motorists.

Options Worth Splurging on - The Panoramic Roof Package ($2,390) includes a huge power-sunroof with rear pop-out windows that really let the sun shine in; the Lighting Package ($890) includes both adaptive, high-intensity headlamps and fog lights that help illuminate the road around curves, along with headlamp washers.


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