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.