From £43,330
Unusual but highly effective — if very large — luxury people-mover

'Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Mercedes Flight R 500. Please bring all seat backs to the upright and locked position and turn off all electronic devices. We’ll be airborne shortly.’

The R-class is all about flying first class. There’s seating for six in three rows of leather armchairs. There’s more space than in most private jets. And, as Mercedes likes to point out, everyone gets a window seat. The difficulty, however, is, categ-orising the ML-based R-class. It’s not an MPV; it’s too low and sleek. Even with four-wheel drive it’s not an off-roader because it’s not intended to venture off-road. It’s not an estate car because it’s too tall.

Mercedes calls it a ‘sports tourer’ – a people mover that creates a new niche. Like Mercedes’ other recent niche player, the CLS coupé, there’s nothing quite like it.

What also sets it apart is its size. At 5157mm nose to tail, it’s 25mm longer than Merc’s already XL-sized S-class. The wheelbase is so long – 3215mm – that the rear wheels could be in a different postcode to those up front, and it weighs 2227kg. Even the short-wheelbase version, which will be more suited to European parking spots, is 4922mm long. While the R-class will be sold in Europe, it has essentially been created for the space-friendly US market. All production will come from Mercedes’ plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with the first long-wheelbaseversions going on sale Stateside in October.

Left-hand-drive long- and short-wheelbase European models arrive in early spring next year, with right-hand-drive versions shortly afterwards. There’s no word on pricing yet, but expect the short-wheelbase R350 entry model to kick off at around £40k with a loaded long-wheelbase R500 costing upwards of £60k.

Initially, three engine options will be on offer. The R 350 comes with the latest 268bhp 3.5-litre V6, while the R 500 features the 302bhp 5.0-litre V8. There’ll also be a R 320 CDI with a 221bhp 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel. All come with Mercedes’ terrific seven-speed automatic as standard. And there’s an AMG R63 version due in 2007, powered by Mercedes’ 502bhp 6.3-litre normally-aspirated V8.

In the metal, the car looks stunning – and like nothing else on the road. The giant windscreen is steeply raked and sweeps into the long roof. The profile of the side windows almost echoes that of the CLS’s, while the nose and bonnet show a hint of B-class. Yet despite the bulk, it is surprisingly aerodynamic, with a Cd of 0.31.

But this car is really about interior space, and transporting six in comfort. The front seats have the look and feel of an S-class’s chairs and come with power adjustment and the option of ventilation and massaging backrests.

In the middle of the long-wheelbase version, the two individual armchair seats have around 860mm of kneeroom and can be adjusted fore and aft by about 150mm creating limousine-like legroom. There are also individual bucket seats in the third row that recline and provide space for a couple of six-feet-tall passengers.

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Need to carry stuff? With the middle and rear seats folded flat, there’s a staggering 2407 litres of space available, with the load platform measuring over 2286mm long. Even with the rear seats in situ, there’s still 266 litres spare. This cabin is cavernous. In the short-wheelbase model the rear is more cramped, but still spacious enough for kids. The cabin is bright and airy, particularly with the optional panoramic sunroof. Great front seats too, with lots of side support, firm cushions and plenty of adjustment.

Visibility is the only negative. The front end is completely invisible from the driver’s seat – some R-class designers lobbied, unsuccessfully, to mount a three-pointed star on the bonnet as a sightline. And the smallish rear window reduces rear vision.

We’re driving the long-wheelbase R 500 and R 350 along the curvy, switchback roads around Carmel, California. On paper, the base R 350 should be a slug, having to haul almost 2.5 tonnes while powering all four wheels. But with 258 lb ft and the smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic that keeps the V6 on the boil, it feels surprisingly athletic. From standstill, 62mph comes up in 8.3sec.The R 500’s 302bhp 5.0-litre V8 is better matched to the car’s weight and size. The sprint to 62mph takes just 6.9sec, while an abundance of gutsy, mid-range grunt allows rapid overtaking and fast exits from corners. Top speed is restricted to 150mph.

Mercedes has done a fine job in making the R-Class rewarding to drive. The suspension is an ML-derived set-up of double wishbones and coils up front, with a new four-link arrangement at the rear. The chassis combines comfort, a jitter-free ride and excellent, low-roll body control and the steering offers plenty of precision and solid on-centre feel, but seems a bit heavy at low speeds.The optional air suspension includes a ‘sport’ setting that turns the R-class into a real athlete. The turn-in is sharper and more precise and body roll virtually removed. The only trade-off is a more brittle ride. You can also raise the ride height by 80mm for tackling rough roads.

So who’s going to buy the R-class? Families, obviously, particularly those looking for real space and seats for six. Maybe estate car owners looking for more space or execs after a six-seat S-class. Whoever the buyer, the R-class guarantees that everyone inside rides up in first class.

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Howard Walker

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