The closest thing to a minivan Mercedes-Benz is ever likely to build, the new R-Class is a six-passenger cross between a sport utility vehicle and a station wagon. From the side, it looks more minivan-ish than R-Class owners might like to admit. Inside, though, it's all Mercedes.
The R-Class is the second product to come from Mercedes' plant in Alabama, which was built to produce the M-Class SUV. Which it still does, and while the R-Class uses a few bits and pieces from the M-Class, it's an entirely different vehicle.
In purpose, the R-Class is similar to the Chrysler Pacifica, in that both offer three rows of seats, two seats per row. You might think that since DaimlerChrysler owns Mercedes and Chrysler, the R-Class and the Pacifica might share some components. You would be wrong. The R-Class is a larger, heavier, more solid vehicle that is considerably more expensive: With the standard 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6 engine, the Mercedes R350 starts at $48,775. The Pacifica, with its 3.5-liter, 250-horsepower V-6, starts at $25,895. The Chrysler is 198.9 inches long, and the R-Class is 203 inches long.
Even so, seating in the third row of the R-Class is moderately tight and not particularly comfortable -- best-suited for kids. The first two rows, though, have comfy captain's chairs with plenty of room.
The test Mercedes was an R500, with a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8, and a seven-speed automatic transmission. With the vehicle's eager, perceptive transmission, though, either engine is fine. I would be tempted to save the $7,500 difference between the two models, and with the V-6, you'll pick up a little fuel mileage. The R350 is EPA-rated at 16 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway, while the R500 is rated at 13/18.
You get more than just a bigger engine with the R500 -- a telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats, a six-disc CD changer and a couple of other features, but all stuff I can live without.
Even with the R350, the list of standard features is a long one: All-wheel drive, side and side-curtain air bags, leather-trimmed upholstery, fog lights, alloy wheels and stability control.
The test R500 had plenty of options, though, including rear climate control, four-wheel air suspension, heated rear seats, a navigation system, rear parking sensors, Sirius satellite radio, an upgraded sound system and a "panoramic roof package," consisting of two huge power sunroofs. All this, plus shipping, raised the $55,500 base price to $66,450. Even so, there are other options offered, such as a rear DVD player, an AMG sport package and a power liftgate.
Weighing in just shy of 5,000 pounds, the R500 is much lighter on its feet than you would think. That's due in part to excellent brakes and big P255/55R-18 tires, but it also feels as though the vast majority of that weight is carried very low in the vehicle. Even on tight turns, the R500 never feels tipsy like some SUVs. Or minivans. Or whatever this thing is.
Highway cruising is exceptionally comfortable, with a smooth ride but still a semi-sporty feel for the road. The R500 is an excellent way to rack up the miles with minimal effort. Around town, it feels smaller than it is.
Inside, the R500 is a bit austere-looking, though all the requisite bells and whistles are in place. Workmanship seems as good as the Mercedes models from Germany, something that has not always been the case with the Alabama-built Benzes.
There are certainly cheaper ways to carry six people, but initial sales of the R-Class suggest that quite a few customers prefer their minivan -- or SUV, or station wagon, or whatever it is -- to carry a three-pointed star in the grille.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5699.