From £43,330
Cheaper entry-level R-class strengthens the big MPVs hand, but it's still a tricky car to understand

What is it?

Anyone of a cynical persuasion could be forgiven for thinking that the Mercedes R-class has, until now, rivalled a broken pencil for its lack of an obvious point. Mercedes' belief that well-heeled punters would be forming queues for an XXL MPV that combines four-wheel drive with the kudos of the three-pointed star has proved woefully wide of the mark. On both sides of the Atlantic, buyers have been staying away in droves.

So now a rethink, and the arrival of a new entry-level R-class that gets five normal seats in place of the previous 2-2-2 three-row seating, and which also gets rear-wheel drive instead of the early R-class's default all-paw 4-Matic.

All this de-contenting has allowed Mercedes to cut the entry price of the range, with the R 280 CDI wearing a screen sticker of £36,420. The R 350 petrol and R 63 AMG versions have been quietly dropped, while further up the range a new optional seven-seat configuration replaces the previous six pews.

What’s it like?

The new car certainly makes a better case for itself than its precedessor. The 280 CDI engine is a slightly detuned version of the 320 CDI's 3.0-litre V6 diesel, but with 188bhp and 324lb ft of torque it's still capable of motoring the R's considerable bulk along at a respectable pace.

Mercedes seven-speed autobox comes as standard and works well with the engine's meaty mid-range. And, snow aside, you're singularly unlikely to notice the absence of four-wheel drive.

Rear seats can still slide to maximise legroom, but three adults trying to share the rear bench will find themselves suffering from a distinct lack of shoulder room. Removal of the collapsable rearmost seats has improved the already impressive boot capacity, though.

Should I buy one?

These revisions to Mercedes leviathan MPV have broadened its appeal, and if you’re going to get one, there’s no doubt that this entry-level diesel model makes the most sense. £36k is, after all, only around £4k more than a mid-spec Land Rover Discovery and equally little more expensive than a Volvo XC90 D5. It enjoys a lower profile than both of those luxo-SUVs, yet is still more desirable and no less talented.

But even after these revisions, the R-class still feels like a car in search of a point. It must look less conspicuous in parts of the world where the highways are wider, and the parking spaces likewise.

Here in the UK though, there will probably be many who still fail to get it – who see it simply as an overpriced MPV, bigger on the outside than a Grand Voyager, significantly pricier, and yet not so big on the inside. And even with all the leather and three-pointed stars in the world, that perspective is hard to argue with.

Mike Duff

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