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Describing the Mercedes-Benz R-Class brings to mind the old fable of the blind men and the elephant. Like the elephant, the R350 is similar in detail to a number of other things; taken as a whole, however, it is very different from anything else on the road. The design of the R350 suggests that the German side of the DaimlerChrysler tag team seems to be learning new tricks from its American partner by creating new vehicular niches to keep ahead of its competition.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class combines the comforts of a luxury sedan with most of the space and versatility of a minivan or an SUV. While not as tall as the last two, it boasts more height than a sedan for excellent headroom. Legroom is also first class, and there is true space for six full-size adults in three two-seat rows. If the R350 is closest in concept to a tall luxury wagon, it doesn't fit the profile of a wagon or any other existing automotive genre.
So what is the R-Class? Mercedes-Benz calls it a Grand Sports Tourer. If that sounds more than vaguely like Chrysler's Pacifica Sports Tourer, the two vehicles share no parts, and the R-Class is, well, more grand in design, social standing, specification, and price.
In the United States, two models of the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class are available: the R350, powered by a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6, and the R500, with a 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower V-8. Both have permanent all-wheel drive, the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission, and the full array of Mercedes-Benz safety features. Interior tech features are led by an eight-speaker AM/FM /single-CD audio system with both MP3-CD capability and an input jack for an auxiliary audio player as standard. Options include the TeleAid telematics system, a GPS navigation system, a glove-box-mounted CD changer, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the Mercedes-Benz telephone system.
Our 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350 test vehicle came with most of the key comfort options but few of the available entertainment packages. To the $48,000 base price and the $775 destination charge, add $690 for Obsidian Black paint; $900 for 10-spoke 18-inch wheels; $530 for the wood-and-leather multifunction steering wheel; $1,750 for the leather and burled-wood interior-trim upgrade; $50 for a rear cargo cover; $1,190 for heated front- and second-row seats; and $1,400 for the Airmatic air-suspension system. The $2,390 Panorama Roof package could be considered comfort or entertainment, while the $1,190 Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system provides great sound. The $58,865 bottom line is not cheap for a Mercedes but will be hard to beat on a square-feet-per-dollar basis. Even the S-Class seems small inside in comparison.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350's sleek and different looks draw attention. "What is it?" is the most common onlooker comment. While the car's Mercedes-Benz heritage is obviously defined by the tristar, the low Mercedes sport grille, and lines that show similarity to several of the manufacturer's other current products, defining exactly what it is can be tricky. The R350's two-box shape is only superficially like a minivan's, proving lower and smaller on closer inspection, as well as lacking sliding doors. It is larger, with a more blended-in shape than that of an E-Class wagon, and it's definitely not an SUV.
Our advice is not to try to categorize the R350. If you need space in a luxury vehicle, look here. All three seating rows are simultaneously usable by six-foot-tall adults. The power-adjustable first row is similar in design and dimension to that of the ML SUV--no complaints for space and comfort there--but the second-row seats are the best in the house. Although manually adjustable, they can be modified for fore-and-aft position and seat-back angle, and they give the chauffeured passenger the feeling of traveling in an executive jet.
Third rows are all too often temporary lodging for small children--but not in the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350. There is more than adequate room for heads, legs, and hips for adults, and access is good, thanks to the spring-based mechanical-repositioning system used to easily move the second-row seats forward and automatically back. The car's third-row seat backs are individually adjustable, and each can fold flat. The same can be done with second-row seats for maximum cargo/passenger versatility, although the R-Class is more likely to be used for passengers than cargo. Everyone gets cup holders and storage space.
The only shortcoming with the R-Class interior is that luggage space behind the third row is limited. This will not be a problem for three couples out for the evening, but it can be an issue for six people on a week's vacation. Mercedes does offer help for this cargo-space deficit with a variety of roof racks and optional storage containers. In four-passenger configuration, no mere sedan will come close to the R-Class's combination of passenger and cargo space.
The Panorama sunroof--at $2,390--is not cheap, but it does add serious upward vision for second- and third-row passengers. Made from smoked glass for UV protection, it runs nearly the whole length of the roof, and the front section can tilt or slide open. Unfortunately, because of the raked windshield, the front of the Panorama roof is too far back for front-passenger enjoyment. Power rear quarter windows are included with the sunroof for decent passive ventilation.
The $1,750 interior-trim package in our test vehicle upgraded the interior to R-500 specs with full leather seating (instead of M-B Tex synthetic for the rear rows), burled-wood trim, and improved interior lighting. It gave a fine executive-boardroom ambiance.
The $530 wood-and-leather multifunction steering wheel provided an upscale driver interface, with auxiliary controls for audio, information, and phone (if installed) systems. All main windows are power operated, as is the sunroof, and holding the SmartKey button can open them automatically on sunny days.
Control of the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350's audio system and optional navigation and phone systems is done through the latest version of the Mercedes Cockpit Management and Data (COMAND) interface. The climate system--dual-zone standard or optional triple zone (you can add separate rear controls)--is easily operated through its own set of self-explanatory controls. An interesting feature of the climate system is tunnel-closing mode, which automatically activates air recirculation.
COMAND as implemented in the R350 is straightforward, with marked hard buttons for all systems to the left of the LCD and a numeric keypad for phone- and audio-system use on the right. A small joystick is used to move the cursor over onscreen soft buttons and to make choices from menus. Screen visibility is good, as it is positioned away from direct glare.
Without the optional navigation system, the COMAND system in our test vehicle controlled only the audio and information systems, and detailed study of the manual was not necessary for operation. The optional $1,190 Harmon Kardon Logic 7 audio system provided great quality sound with solid separation. Its six-CD changer is in the glove box, where the front passenger can easily reach it. Besides commercial and home-burned audio CDs, it plays MP3 CDs, displaying track, title, and folder information on the screen. Also hiding in the glove box is a minijack for an auxiliary music player, which will activate the same screen display. Sirius Satellite Radio is available, although it wasn't included in our test car.
Without the optional nav system, the LCD shows a virtual compass, which picks up direction slowly and none too accurately.
The standard dual-zone, automatic climate-control system works well, heating and cooling the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350's cavernous interior relatively quickly. Control is thankfully not done through the COMAND system but by simple standard knobs.