Perhaps it's best to start by letting Mercedes make its own case for the new R-class, which comes to the UK in shorter-wheelbase, dynamically tweaked Europe-friendly form next spring with prices starting at around £40,000.
First, and there’s nothing like a little self-confidence to get the juices flowing, it’s an unprecedented vehicle concept (the Grand Sports Tourer) that reaffirms Mercedes as a visionary and trendsetter among car makers.
What makes the R-class unique, argues Mercedes, is that it takes the acknowledged strengths of established vehicle categories – sporty saloon, estate, MPV and four-wheel drive – and fuses them to create a new car with a character all of its own.
All things to all people? Not exactly. To fully appreciate the R-class you need to be ‘modern minded’ and seeking a vehicle that offers ‘tremendous versatility, athletic performance, more than ample room, exemplary standards of safety and impeccable comfort for up to six passengers’.
If that’s the case, then prepare to be ‘enthralled by the beguiling styling, prestigious flair and, last but by no means least, the dynamism out on the road’.
Not convinced? All right, let Mercedes put it to you this way: the R-class provides a wholly new motoring experience. That’s right, not massaged, not evolved, not re-packaged, not re-imagined. But new.
Conceivably, this is a claim calculated to annoy an increasingly cynical motoring press which would no doubt point to other well-intentioned revelations like the Renault Avantime. But it’s backed up by impressive early sales in the US and, in a broader philosophical sense, the knowledge that it’s the Cayenne, that most unlikely fusion of lofty 4x4 and supercar, and not the 911 that’s made Porsche the most profitable car maker in the world.
Of course, if Mercedes really has made a vehicle that can stand in for all its other models, it might be in danger of stealing sales from a wider line up than just the M-class 4x4 and E-class estate but, realistically, Benz sees the R-class attracting more customers to the brand: ‘empty nesters’ who currently drive large 4x4s but who need more space and flexibility.
When the R-class is launched in the UK next spring, there will be a choice of three engines; a petrol and diesel V6 and a 306bhp 5.0-litre petrol V8. But it’s the 224bhp, third-generation common-rail V6 diesel that will account for 60 per cent of the 1800 projected sales and it’s this car, the 320 CDI short wheelbase, we’re driving in the Bavarian Alps.
It’s a startling-looking car which, like the CLS, has huge presence and is far better in the metal than in photographs. In particular, the arching roof line invests the shape with a sense of muscularity that makes the new S-class look clumsy.
Measuring 4922mm from nose to tail, the short-wheelbase R-class certainly doesn’t take up any more road space than Merc’s flagship saloon, but it’s much roomier inside. There’s seating for six in three rows and the four seats in the rear fold flat individually, allowing the load capacity to be expanded to 1950 litres (2385 in the long-wheelbase version).
In fact, the cabin is a thing of beauty – obviously strongly influenced by the latest MPV thinking, though much closer to a luxury saloon in its ambience and appointments. The seats and driving position are simply terrific, the fascia and instruments a triumph of style, substance and practicality.
The new 3.0-litre V6 diesel with third-generation common-rail, direct-injection technology claims improved fuel consumption, even lower exhaust emissions and an audible improvement in refinement. But it has to be said that, while impressively hushed on the motorway at speed, it doesn’t seem to be quite as silky and muted as Audi’s rival 3.0 V6 under hard acceleration.
The peak torque of 376lb ft doesn’t feel as heroic as it looks on paper, either, though the engine works brilliantly with the 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission providing plenty of seamless shove from standstill and enough for respectable fast-lane autobahn occupancy.
Perhaps controversially, as in the M-class Mercedes’ engineers have dispensed with the conventional automatic selector lever in the centre console and replaced it with a stalk on the steering column which looks old-fashioned but works well. The additional gearshift buttons on the steering wheel let you change gear yourself but, with this motor at least, you just don’t feel inclined.
Mercedes has thrown pretty much everything at the chassis: permanent all-wheel drive, its electronically controlled 4ETS traction system, ESP stability control, air suspension for the rear wheels, with the option (fitted to our car) of Airmatic all-round air suspension with ADS (Adaptive Damping System), which automatically lowers the suspension by 20 millimetres at high speeds to reduce wind resistance.
As the road kinks and curls through the wooded Bavarian valleys I’m struck by how neat and predictable the R-class’s manners are. The body structure feels stiff and the suspension works quietly. The four-wheel drive isn’t intrusive, it just seems to extend the reach and completeness of the Merc’s range. On this mostly smooth asphalt it has fine grip and a fluent way of stringing together combinations of bends. It isn’t all that incisive yet unerringly composed, rewarding a press-on approach while refusing to be ruffled.
Passive safety is top-drawer, too. Pre-Safe, the safety system that detects critical handling situations and immediately springs into action to prepare occupants and vehicle alike for an imminent collision, is standard, as are adaptive front airbags and front side airbags as well as window airbags, while ‘Neck-Pro’ crash-responsive head restraints are optional.
Alloy wheels, speed-sensitive power steering and front seats which are electrically adjustable for height, cushion angle and backrest angle are also make the standard equipment list, while entertainment basics are based around a CD-tuner with eight loudspeakers.
So, a wholly new driving experience? Hardly. The R-class is a lower, sportier 4x4 with a third row of seats and no off-road ability to speak of, but it’s no less desirable for that. Just as Mercedes claims, it is roomy, versatile, safe and good-looking. More impressive still, though, is the way the short-wheelbase, Euro-tweaked oil-burner drives. It rides extremely well and is fabulously stable and relaxing on the autobahn, yet you can have a giggle on your favourite road. After the A-class this is easily Mercedes’ best fusion effort to date.