2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class: Form Equals Substance

During a press event in Hoboken, New Jersey, automotive media had the chance to drive the updated 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class.  This was a highly anticipated event for me, as I have always been a fan of the R-Class’ impressive interior layout.  Driving one was like piloting a luxury private jet, as each seating position offered business class accommodations.

I was never thrilled, however, by the exterior design of the “R,” notably the front-end treatment with oval headlamps and a generally soft look.  So Mercedes-Benz did the wise thing:  They updated the interior to make it even more luxurious and user friendly, and they redesigned the exterior to make it more rugged looking.  The result is a crossover SUV that should finally make a dent in sales numbers for the company.  Whereas the old R-Class was “droopy,” the new model can definitely be called “swoopy.”

Mercedes calls the redesign “a new, self assured appearance.”  The focus for Mercedes designers was a complete revision of the front end by emphasizing the width of the R-Class.  Design lines flow into the horizontally structured hood, with fenders, headlamps and trademark grille with Mercedes star all blending in powerful fashion.  Want a really wicked look up front?  Then select the optional LED Daytime Running Lights for a high-tech appearance.

The remainder of the R-Class retains the attractive lines that make this vehicle so useful.  The roofline is tall — great for interior room — and only tapers off at the rear to create a coupe-like effect.  A new rear bumper cover, modified taillamps and integrated tailpipe trim help accentuate the R-Class’ wide stance.   Outfit your R with the optional 21-inch alloy wheels, and you’ve got quite a looker on your hands.

But inside is where the R-Class really earns its three-pointed star.  You can choose from two interior layouts with six and seven seat configurations.  For my money, I’m going with the six-seat layout, as it is most reminiscent of the business class appeal I alluded to earlier in this review.  You can even order a special console between the  second row seats, adding to the pleasure of being driven.  Third row access is good, and the seats are quite capable of housing normal sized adults, though the seating position is low and your legs ride high as there is no recessed footwell.   No problem though, as jaunts with two of your favorite couples to the local country club will find everyone arrives fresh and ready for lunch overlooking the 18th hole.

But why should your passengers have all of the fun?  Mercedes has ensured the driving experience is crisp with the new R-Class.  Over several hours of driving along both the New Jersey and New York sides of the Hudson River, I can attest that this is driver’s machine, much in the same vein as Benz’s own E and CLS-Class automobiles.

The driving position, coupled with the low, sloping hood, means outward vision is superb.  The typical Mercedes-Benz attention to quality of interior materials is almost a 100% success.  My only gripe is the rough texture of the headliner/pillar material used.  It has the feel of cheap toilet paper, and is not up to the standards of the rest of the interior.  All switchgear is easily accessible, and COMAND audio and navigation functions are handled through a center stack mounted video screen.

In actual use, the navigation system  may require a sharp eye.  Using the system to guide us to lunch, we overshot our destination, yet the system did not alert us to the fact we’d reached the destination.  When I tried to reprogram the system to cover the short period where we realized we were off track, it showed a total trip length of 72 miles, even though we were less than three miles away from our destination.  For some reason, the system was rerouting us back to the original starting point, meaning we would travel the entire route again.  This glitch may have been caused by the way the system was initially programmed, but the error is worth noting.

The actual on-road performance of the R-Class left no wants or needs.  A 3.0-liter BlueTEC turbodiesel V6 making 210 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque powered my tester. I also had the opportunity to drive the gasoline powered version, with 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.  For my money, I’m buying the BlueTEC diesel every time.  Folks, if you are sleeping on diesel technology, wake up!  All 400 pound-feet of torque is delivered in a very narrow 1,600-2,400 rpm powerband.  The grunt you feel in your gut on full acceleration is quite impressive.  No diesel clatter, no smoke or stinky emissions, just powerful forward motion.  The fun factor of driving a modern diesel is hard to measure, but be assured it is at or near the top of the charts!

Though the diesel version is a couple of ticks slower to 60 mph than the gas version (8.6 seconds versus 8.0), it feels like you are accelerating faster due to the hefty torque numbers.  Diesel versions also return decent 18/24 city/highway mpg numbers (14/19 for gasoline versions).

R-Class underpinnings reveal technology equally suited for spirited or touring driving comfort.  The R-Class handled curves with aplomb, with the diesel coupled with Mercedes’ standard 4Matic all-wheel drive system powering me through with ease.   Ride quality is compliant, but not too soft as to lose backroad handling edge.  It’s a dual natured beast that’s just as happy eating tarmac as it is cruising along a sandy beach.

And what would any Mercedes-Benz be without the latest useful safety technology?  The answer is it would not be a Mercedes-Benz.  Long a leader worldwide in safety innovation and technology, Mercedes has fitted the R-Class with all of the safety acronyms you need to keep accidents from happening, and protects you and your passengers if one does occur.  No matter the year of Mercedes I’ve driven, from a 1960s Cabriolet to my own 1989 and 1994 E-Class models, I always feel safe knowing that the car I’m driving represented the state of the art, safety wise, at the time it was built.

Prices for these terrific new models have not been set, but expect them not to stray too far from the $49,300 for the 2010 gas version, and $50,800 for the BlueTEC diesel version.

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