Not too long ago, there was a time when all of the vehicles in an automaker's portfolio weren't required to wear the same uniform. Each model could be its own unique expression of the brand's strengths without being forced to schedule an appointment with the corporate plastic surgeon. Granted, some marques lost a bit of identity with scads of mismatched children running around the lot, but the world's automotive variety pack was considerably more interesting. If you didn't like the face on one product, but wanted to stick with the brand, there were a plethora of options to choose from.
That's not the case anymore. We live in a world of increasingly unified automotive design, and while that's resulted in a few products missing the mark in a big way (we're looking at you, Acura), just as many manufacturers have created some real winners by spreading the corporate face among its progeny. Dodge's decision to share the Ram grille across its line was one of the best moves the company has made in recent history, and Ford and Chevrolet have similarly benefited from strong familial design cues.
Now Mercedes-Benz is looking to walk down the same path by spreading its upright grille to the 2011 R-Class. The move isn't so much of a shot in the arm as a shot of espresso for the Silver Arrow's awkward duckling, but it should help the luxury people mover blend in amongst its more beautiful brethren.
Photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
With all-new sheetmetal from the A-pillar forward, it would be easy to mistake the 2011 R-Class as a new generation instead of a warmed-over version of last year's crossover, but the truth is, not much else has changed, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Up front, the R-Class now wears a stand-up grille borrowed from the likes of the GLK and SLS AMG, and it looks pretty sharp on the high-riding long-roof. New LED daytime running lights are nestled low into the front fascia, and swept HID headlamps stick close to the fender line. A chrome accent strip along the lower bumper adds a touch of flash.
From the side, the new nose does wonders for the overall profile of the vehicle. Whereas the 2010 R-Class suffered from a terminally droopy face, the vertical look lends a little bit more pride to the R twins. Instead of borrowing from the Pontiac Trans Sport playbook, the R-Class now looks like it belongs with the rest of the Mercedes-Benz clan. Never underestimate the power of a nose job. The rest of the exterior remains largely untouched by the refresh pen, though a faux diffuser has cropped up on the rear bumper and trapezoidal exhaust tips have replaced the round bits of the 2010 model.
Likewise, those familiar with the interior from last year won't find too many shocking revelations. The dash has been mildly restyled with frosted silver air vents and a two-tone leather option has popped up as well. We're not complaining, though. The cabin is still a comfortable place to spend a road trip no matter where you're sitting. Mercedes-Benz is particularly proud of the fact that the vehicle's third row is actually functional, and it's true that full-grown adults who are less than five-foot-eleven can fit in the way back seats without suffering a cramped neck or bruised knees. The bottom line is that unlike many other three-row creations out there, the final thrones in the new R-Class are actually good for something other than child cruelty.
While everything is plenty comfortable from a passenger stand point, we did run into a few issues behind the wheel. Our biggest gripe is that the nav screen is still located low on the dash, meaning the driver has to spend too much time staring down and away from the road to get an idea of where he or she is headed. It's a distraction that would require a significant redesign of the dash to fix. Otherwise, our only qualm is an awkwardly placed cruise control lever that dangles over the turning indicator stalk. After accidentally decelerating five times instead of initiating the left turn signal, we just gave up on the cruise control all together.
Buyers hoping to find a host of new drivetrain options in the 2011 R-Class will be disappointed. M-B has made one big change to the lineup by making all-wheel drive standard on both available versions of the crossover, but engine choices will stay the same. That means a 3.5-liter gasoline V6 with 272 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque and a 3.0-liter diesel V6 with 211 horsepower will both find their way behind the headlights, but sadly, the bonkers R63 AMG version with its 6.2-liter V8 hasn't resurfaced. The diesel does have one big trick up its sleeves, though – Mercedes has managed to pull a beefy 400 lb-ft of twist from the sixer, and it makes a huge difference the crossover's driveability.
While Mercedes-Benz technically offers a total of nine variations on the R-Class formula around the world, Americans will only be able to get their hands on two – the R 350 4MATIC and the R 350 BlueTEC 4MATIC in long-wheelbase guise. Both vehicles put power to the all-wheel-drive system by a seven-speed automatic transmission, and the Silver Arrow claims to have (marginally) increased fuel economy in both vehicles. The gasoline R is expected to return around 15 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, while its diesel counterpart should deliver around 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. If those figures seem a little low for what's essentially a big, German minivan, keep in mind that R 350 BlueTEC 4MATIC hits the scales at a mind-boggling 5,145 pounds.
It's difficult not to compare the twin R Class models while on the road. Mercedes-Benz hasn't offered up pricing information just yet, but given the few changes to the model, we have to guess the numbers will stay fairly close to current MSRPs. That means that the BlueTEC diesel will likely command a $1,500 premium over its gasoline sibling, but in our eyes, it's a small price to pay for the upgrade in both fuel economy and power. Merc engineers have done a bang-up job when it comes to keeping road noise at bay in both models, and the oil-burning engine seems just as quiet as its gasoline counterpart as a result.
In diesel dress, the epic 400 lb-ft of torque makes up for any horsepower shortcoming, and the crossover easily builds speed as a result. Climbing hills or going for a pass doesn't require rev-jumping downshifts – just dip into the throttle and the R 350 BlueTEC 4MATIC accelerates without too much effort. That's not always the case with the less robust 3.5-liter gasoline V6, though. The engine simply feels winded and out of place given the luxurious trappings inside. Speed dips noticeably on nearly any incline, and building any serious momentum requires a premeditated effort. While the seven-speed transmission does its best to make up for seemingly missing power, there's only so much the gearbox can do.
Otherwise, the transmission in both vehicles is buttery smooth, and you'd be hard pressed to notice gear shifts unless you're staring directly at the tachometer. Likewise, the 4MATIC all-wheel drive system seems to do its job without any untoward clunky noises or wobbles from the steering wheel. While we didn't really get to play with the system in anything slipperier than New Jersey potholes, we're guessing it could hold its own in rain and snow.
We did find ourselves a little disappointed with the R's steering. Turn the tiller one way or the other and it feels like you're connected to the front wheels via a foam pool noodle. If you're looking for the same meaty, weighted feel of other German manufacturers, forget it – it's just not there. Fortunately, the brakes are just the opposite. Plant your foot on the pedal and the big Silver Arrow will come to a halt right then and there – not an easy task for a leviathan of this girth. Brake fade is minimal, even after a few panic stops, and the system helps to make up for some of the disconnect supplied by the limp steering wheel.
Odds are we're looking at the last hurrah for the R-Class in the States – and possibly worldwide, too. While the big beastie is built right here in the US of A, American buyers haven't quite figured out what to make of the vehicle. Sales started out as a disappointment and have languished from there. If there's hope for an all-new generation, it's in Asia. Mercedes-Benz sells different variations of the R in 86 markets all over the world, and it's enjoyed particular success in China where large chauffeured vehicles are king at the moment – even those that look like minivans (witness the very successful Buick GL8). But without any direct competition in the U.S. and too many affordable solutions for hauling up to seven people on the market, most buyers simply haven't shown interest in a massive Merc. While the new corporate uniform will likely win over a handful of customers, chances are Silver Arrow buyers will just as soon buy the big-boy GL-Class SUV over its crossover sister – and at $49,300 for the gasoline R Class, we can't really blame them.
Photos by Zach Bowman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Fresh styling, more sports appeal.
The refurbished and sportier 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class has been treated to a completely new look, with a new grille, hood, front fenders, bumpers, air inlets, and all front lamp units, using the Mercedes-Benz three-bar-and-star sports car grille in lieu of the former and smaller two-star-and-bar grille.
The hood is more steeply raked than the hood on the original. The bodysides have not had to be completely recontoured to fit with the new nose, so that it looks about the same from the sides, but the rear end also has been redone more crisply, with a new diffuser, new bumpers, exhaust tips, and LED fiber-optic taillamps.
The R-Class has had some difficulty finding buyers in the past because there is nothing else quite like it on the road (since the Chrysler Pacifica was cancelled). The R-Class has four hinged side doors, not sliding doors, and a hatch in back, so it's not a proper minivan. It has all wheel-drive, but it's not tall enough to be a called a real SUV, even though its off-road prowess is far better than most. And it's not shaped or sized like a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, either.
From its introduction, the company has referred to the R-Class as a sport-tourer, speced out for long-distance comfort, interior roominess, and, with that giant sunroof, a feeling of open space inside. Mercedes-Benz says that the R-Class is the roomiest vehicle in its entire passenger-car lineup for its overall size.
The R-Class is aimed to compete with the Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKT, Buick Enclave and Audi Q7 in one of the U.S. market's fastest-growing market segments. The R-Class is sold in 90 markets around the world, with a mix of small V6 gasoline engines, diesels, and 5.5-liter V8 engines (which were once offered here but were canceled due to lack of interest and high gasoline prices).
The U.S. market demands larger engines and larger interiors than Europe does, so we get the gasoline V6 and turbodiesel V6 engines. Both come with the 7-speed overdrive automatic and 4MATIC all wheel-drive, using the long-wheelbase chassis. Where some other R-Class markets get a short-wheelbase model, a small 3.0-liter gasoline engine, and as few as four seats, we get only the larger configuration, with a buyer's choice of six seats in a 2-2-2 layout or seven seats in a 2-3-2 layout. The six-seat layout offers an optional second-row console.
The 5000-pound R-Class uses welded steel unibody construction with front and rear subframes to mount the steering and suspension systems, with almost half the body weight in high-strength low-alloy steel. This is standard Mercedes-Benz practice on almost everything they make, because it's lighter, stronger, easier to build and easier repair than traditional body-on-frame vehicles.
The engineers have paid huge amounts of attention and money when it comes to making the front and rear suspensions and the large tires work together for a ride quality that is both taut and plush, absorbent and resistive, so that the occupants are not bothered by road irregularities and can just sit back and enjoy the view.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class comes in R350 ($50,240) and R350 BlueTEC ($51,740) versions. The R350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine. The BlueTEC uses a turbocharged V6 diesel engine. Both come with 4MATIC all-wheel drive and a 7-speed automatic transmission. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
Standard features include cloth upholstery, dual-zone air conditioning, real burl walnut wood trim, cruise control, a power sunroof, windows, rear quarter windows, mirrors, seats, locks, paddle shifters, the Comand system, multi-function steering wheel, AM/FM/CD/DVD sound system, Bluetooth hands-free telephoning, rain-sensing wipers, rear self-leveling air suspension, and automatic headlamps.
Options include the Premium 1 Package ($4000) with the hard-drive navigation system, Comand vehicle control system, enhanced voice control for audio telephone and navigation, Gracenote media database, HD Digital Radio, iPod/MP3 media interface hidden in the glovebox, a memory package for driver seat, power steering column and exterior mirrors, power folding mirrors, power liftgate, power steering column, rearview camera, auto-dimming mirrors, Sirius satellite radio with real-time traffic and a Zagat Survey restaurant guide, one 115V AC power outlet, and a 4GB hard-drive with Music Register for download of MP3 files.
Premium 2 ($6050) has everything above plus a Harman Kardon Logic7 surround sound system with Dolby digital 5.1, and Keyless Go. A lighting package ($985) adds bi-xenon headlamps, LED daytime running lights, and headlamp washers. The Sport Package ($1350), for gasoline models only, adds dark-tinted taillamp lenses, heat-absorbing blue-tinted glass in the first row, and AMG 20-inch sport wheels and tires.
Individual options for the R-Class will include the electronic adaptive damping system, complete front and rear Airmatic air suspension, Distronic adaptive cruise control, a power/memory front passenger seat, rear side window sunshades, the multicontour seat for driver and passenger, the second-row center console, infrared-reflecting glass, poplar wood trim, and heated rear seats.
Safety features include ABS, Quick Brake Assist, Electronic Stability Program, Automatic Slip Control, traction control, 4MATIC all-wheel drive, Blind Spot Assist warning, eight front, side, and roof airbags, Pre-Safe, Neck-Pro.
The 2011 R-Class has the sports-car grille with the central star, a set of three flowing lines from front to rear on the body, and a refreshed design in a thoroughly modern idiom. In the wind tunnel, it's slick enough to generate a 0.35 coefficient of drag, better than many lower-riding, rounded-off passenger cars and better by far than most of the SUVs against which it will compete. In many markets, things like PreSafe, adaptive headlamps, and the new intelligent lighting system (ILS), all class exclusives for the R-Class, will be standard or optional equipment.
Inside, the R-Class is a Mercedes-Benz through and through, but with some new features added, such as the central controller on the console for combined control of the sound system, navigation system, and telephone. There's a much more angular, purposeful instrument panel and dashboard layout. All of the dashtop panels in the R-Class will be anti-glare black, regardless of the interior color scheme (black, tan or gray). If there's a big negative in the R-Class's daily-use duties, it's the interior space, or lack thereof. Mercedes-Benz told us that the total interior space inside the R-Class is less than the C-Class station wagon we don't get in this market.
When loaded up to the top edge of the rear-seat backrests, the load compartment of the R-Class has a capacity of 15.2 cubic feet. The rear-seat backrests fold down in a 33/67 split or folded down completely to produce a flat load floor. Folding the second seat flat produces 42.2 cubic feet of load capacity, and all seats down yields a cargo capacity of 85 cubic feet, with a load compartment measuring 66 inches (5.5 feet) long. The load compartment can be hidden from sight thanks to the load compartment cover, while load-securing rings make it easier to fasten down items of luggage. There are also bag hooks, hooks in the tailgate trim, a 12-volt power outlet and a lamp at the side of the load compartment. Standard equipment also includes an additional 86-liter stowage compartment under the fold-up load compartment floor. The compartment is split into smaller partitions by a removable stowage tub. Optional features include the safety partition net as well as the power tailgate, which can be opened and closed at the push of a button, either from the driver's seat or by remote control.
The Mercedes-Benz R350 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 engine rated at 268 horsepower at 6000 rpm, with 258 foot-pounds of torque available from 2400 to 4500 rpm, and 87 percent of that maximum available as low as 1500 rpm, very useful for crawling, whether through traffic or off-road. Mercedes-Benz says the V6 will power the R-Class to 0-60 times of 8.0 seconds, with a top speed over 140 mph and an expected highway fuel economy number of 19 miles per gallon under the new EPA test procedures that produce generally lower numbers.
The diesel alternative is the BlueTec turbodiesel, sporting 210 horsepower with more than 400 foot-pounds of torque available from 1600 to 2400 rpm. The diesel, which uses an array of exhaust scrubbers and chemical injection systems using urea, is legal for sale in all 50 states.
The 7-speed automatic transmission that comes on all R-Class models gradually adapts to each driver's driving style and changes shift patterns accordingly. By analyzing speed versus throttle opening comparisons, the transmission will know whether the R-Class is going uphill or downhill and will either delay upshifts or hasten downshifts accordingly. And, unlike most SUV automatics, the transmission in the R-Class comes with a TouchShift feature for side-to-side manual control and a choice of Comfort or Sport shifting modes for the driver's choice of higher rpm shifting and harder shifts or lower rpm shifting and softer shifts.
The 4MATIC system has a 45/55 front/rear torque bias and uses a dual-disc clutch that acts as a locking center differential in difficult traction situations.
The R-Class normally rides on 19-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels shod with 235/50R19 all-season tires. Optional 20-inch, seven-spoke wheels, 8.5 inches front and 9.5 inches in the rear, wear 235/40R20 tires in front and 255/40R20 at the rear.
Traveling on the freeways, winding country roads, and village streets in upstate New York, we pushed the R-Class as hard as we dared, and it behaves more like a luxury sedan than a truck, quietly soaking up bumps and potholes and other imperfections, and it cruises easily with the 3.5-liter engine when traffic and space permit.
Acceleration is very good for a vehicle of this weight, and in seventh-gear overdrive, it just purrs along at about 1800 rpm at 75 mph. Steering feel is good, braking performance is exemplary, and the R-Class is very quick and easy to learn. Nothing tricky in the switches and controls, and ergonomics are excellent.
Towing capacity is just 3500 pounds, so the R-Class is not our first choice for towing.
The Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a lap-of-luxury touring vehicle for groups or families up to seven persons, fitted with a tried-and-true set of powertrain options, one of the world's most complete safety packages, and lots of head, should, elbow, hip and knee room. It's stylish, sleek and sporty, and if it's not the best vehicle in its class, we don't know what is.
Jim McCraw filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Hoboken, New Jersey.
Mercedes-Benz R350 4MATIC ($50,240); R350 BlueTEC 4MATIC ($51,740).
Options As Tested
Premium 1 package ($3950), Sport package ($1330).
Mercedes-Benz R350 4MATIC ($51,115).
*The data and content on this web site is subject to change without notice. Neither AOL nor any of its data or content providers shall be liable for errors in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.