Autos: Test Drive: R-Class

3 minute read

Mercedes designates its 2006 R-Class models as “sports tourers.” Which is to say the R-Class isn’t so much an SUV or a minivan–there’s already a new M-Class for 2006–so much as a station wagon with a very serious superiority complex. The six leather seats practically wait at attention. The overly busy command-center dashboard console wants to trade business cards with a Gulfstream V.

Although Mercedes seems to be positioning the R-Class as the ultimate in leisure travel, the car does not want to kick back; it wants to kick butt. The R-500 ($56,275; the R-350, with a smaller engine, starts at $48,775) features a five-L, 302-h.p. power plant that, while not sports-car responsive when you stick the accelerator, sucks up the passing lane with the kind of grace and power that makes you smirk as you blow past lesser machines. The suspension, on the other hand, leaves nothing to be desired. I had every intention of braking or downshifting (the transmission is one of those silly, mutable automatics) as we approached a 40-m.p.h. curve at 65 m.p.h., but the car was having none of it.

That’s not to say the folks from Stuttgart have forgotten the niceties. There are cupholders that can handle a grande latte, and there’s an integrated bottle opener. (What, no corkscrew?) Coolest feature: you can plug your iPod into the audio system through a connection in the glove box. More important, the R-Class is as roomy as a suburb, even if the exterior design fails to excite. TIME’s backseat test passenger–all 6 ft. 8 in. of him–hadn’t had that much room in a car since he was 10 years younger and a foot shorter. And there’s an optional rear roof window, adding to the roomy, open feeling. You can even raise the car’s height to suit your driving style–sport or comfort–although the difference wasn’t all that notable.

A single test ride certainly can’t answer the lingering questions that Mercedes fans have raised about quality over the past couple of years, but you do get a glimpse of what the issues have been. There are motorized controls for everything short of the seat belt. Instructions for operating the seats run a dozen or so pages in the manual. Mercedes has put the gearshift back on the column to create more console space. It’s an almost quaint touch, but you aren’t shifting anything: the shifter is merely a lever that signals some other mechanical minion to go into reverse. There’s also a remote-entry system that lets you unlock the doors and start the car without inserting a key in the lock or ignition. You wouldn’t want to exert yourself.

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