First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

A new look for the “Grand Sport Tourer.”

by on Jun.25, 2010

A new, more rugged look for the 2011 remake of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class.

What is it about American drivers?  They’ll pay a premium and sacrifice some everyday functionality to get an SUV that looks rugged but likely never sees an off-road trail.  Offer them a wagon, minivan or anything that looks more like a people mover and they go running.

That seems to have been the curse that kept the old Mercedes-Benz R-Class bound to the bottom of the U.S. sales charts.  It was a lavish and well-appointed vehicle that seemed to have a hard time finding a distinct niche and so was largely written off by American motorists – even though it received generally favorable reviews from both the media and those few buyers who actually drove one home.

So, the German maker is giving it one more try, and with the 2011 remake of the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, it’s not making the same mistake.  For one thing, you likely won’t hear the maker’s marketing folk refer to the new model as a “Grand Sport Tourer,” whatever that means, anymore.

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Even more luxurious — and functional — than before, the critical update for the new model-year focuses on front and rear-end styling, giving the roomy people carrier a bit more of a crossover-ute look that should enhance its appeal.

Big and roomy, functionality is still a key to the R-Class appeal.

We spent a couple days on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River getting to know the new Mercedes R-Class.  After paying a visit to the plastic surgeon, the nose of the new people mover gets a more upright grille, with revised headlamps , chrome-ringed fog lamps and new daylight running lamps pulling together to,  dare we say it, a bit more of a brutish look.  The rear end also gets a more SUV-like update, including exhaust tips now integrated into the rear fascia.

We realized quickly that you won’t confuse it with the carmaker’s classic utility vehicles, the GL and M-Class models, but there’s a sharper edge to the new look – which is largely limited to all points north of the A-pillar – than before, and our anecdotal observations suggest the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is definitely more of a head-turner than the old one, which had about the same level of invisibility as a paunchy, middle-aged man trying to cruise the Fort Lauderdale beaches during Spring Break.

While there were a few rear-end tweaks, most of the cosmetic updates on the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class can be found forward of the A-pillar.

In Europe, where the R-Class has had decidedly more success with buyers, the people mover is offered in a variety of configurations, with both short- and long-wheelbase offerings, as well as a wide range of powertrains.  Considering the low sales numbers here, Mercedes has wisely limited the complexity of its offerings to just the longer version of the 2011 R-Class.  And there are no V8s on the powertrain side, just two V6s, a 3.5-liter gasoline engine and a similarly-sized Blue-Tech diesel.

What you definitely won’t see, stresses Stephen Cannon Mercedes’ U.S. marketing chief, is the return of the short-lived R63 AMG performance people-mover.  (But if you can find one, you might consider buying it.  Perhaps the shortest-lived model ever launched by Mercedes-Benz U.S., it is already something of a collector’s item.)

Since basic function is the hallmark of a vehicle like this, however you bend the sheet metal, let’s start with a look inside.  Here you do have some considerable options when it comes to configurability.  You can order the 2011 R-Class as a four, five, six, even seven-seater, and opt for both middle-row center console and even a reclining back row.  What you can’t order is a sliding rear doors.  That minivan touch would’ve been a kiss of death, despite its maxi-functionality.

Obviously, whether you choose a two or three-row model will impact your potential cargo capacity, but at max, you’re up to 85 cubic feet and a 7-foot cargo floor, with a minimum 15.2 cf, enough to carry a few roll-on suitcases or a week’s worth of groceries if you stack carefully.

The 3.5-liter diesel on the R350 BlueTec delivers enormous torque -- and significantly better fuel economy.

As you’d expect of a Mercedes in this price range and category, even the most basic version of the 2011 R-Class is lavishly-equipped, and you can load it up with the sort of “long-range comfort” touches, in the words of chief engineer Thomas Ruhl, that will appeal to empty-nesters as much as affluent young family buyers.

We expect a sizable share of buyers to not only go for the in-dash navigation but the twin rear-seat entertainment system.

Considering that many users will be carrying their kids, the new people mover’s safety technology should be especially appealing.  It’s loaded up with just about everything Mercedes could think of, including eight airbags, the Pre-Safe system – which anticipates a potential collision and automatically takes steps such as cinching seatbelts tight – electronic stability program and Neck-Pro, which reduces the likelihood of whiplash-related injuries.

You can also order both Blind Spot Assist and radar-guided Adaptive Cruise Control.

As earlier noted, the powertrain packages come in two flavors, though we’d be remiss in describing them as plain vanilla.  The most likely choice for most buyers will be the R350, with its 3.5-liter V-6 making 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.  Mileage-minded buyers might consider the somewhat more expensive alternative, the R350 Blue Tec.

The Germans, Mercedes in particular, have done a solid job of explaining to buyers the advantages of diesel, and that’s more than just fuel economy.  While the oil-burner makes just 200 horsepower, its intercooled turn pumps up wheel-spinning torque to 400 lb-ft.

Fuel economy shouldn’t be ignored, however.  While the gasoline version gets a reasonably acceptable 14 City and 19 Highway, according to the EPA, the R350 Blue Tec bumps that to a much more impressive 18 and 24.  And our experience suggests that, like many diesels, you may actually get better mileage than the government estimates, while gas and hybrid models almost always fall short of stated ratings.

As for performance, the gas-power R350 will launch from 0 to 60 in eight seconds even, the heavier diesel taking just 0.6 seconds more to get you there.

The R-Class is heavy, at around 5,000 pounds and up, but we found its updated suspension system and hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering surprisingly nimble as we headed north from the re-gentrified Hoboken, New Jersey and into the farm and horse country in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

For us Midwesterners, we’re particularly pleased that Mercedes will continue to offer the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, something that has vanished from many of the remaining minivan offerings.

And, yes, we expect that many potential buyers will compare the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class to a minivan, whether the new Odyssey coming from Honda or the classic offerings from Chrysler.  For their part, Mercedes planners are hoping to draw shoppers away from the likes of the Buick Enclave, which they list as their most direct competitor.

The 2011 R-Class certainly is not going to appeal to everyone.  The cosmetic changes are handsome and well-integrated – unlike the bolted-on revisions made by some other makers to their unloved minivans – but the R-Class still doesn’t have the sort of ruggedy outdoor ute look Americans seem to crave to disguise the real reasons for purchasing a people mover.

Introduced in late 2005, the R-Class has ridden a sales roller coaster, peaking at 18,168 in the 2006 calendar-year.  Demand has plummeted ever since, to a mere flyspeck 2,825 last year.  Marketing chief Cannon concedes the people mover likely won’t ever return to the sales levels of ’06, but he’s nonetheless convinced that the updated 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class can rise out of the cellar.

At a starting price of around $50,000, it’s definitely worth a closer look.

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