First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is better by a nose

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class - Click above for high-res image gallery

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.

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