What is it?
For a while there signs were that Mercedes-Benz was set to give up on the R-class. Launched in 2005, the big MPV has never really managed to fulfill the hype placed on it. It was, or so we thought, destined to be abandoned as part of the German car maker’s cost cutting efforts.
And yet now, despite worldwide sales of less than half those originally projected – many of them at heavily discounted prices, Mercedes-Benz is giving the R-class a second chance – prompted, it says, by efforts of rivals, most notably BMW with the 5-series GT, to muscle in the market it had become used to calling its own.
At the heart of the R-class’s renewed push to win over buyers is a heavily revised appearance. Gone is the odd combination of styling cues adorning the original model, replaced by a more cohesive looking design that gives it an instantly more confident air, especially the front-end which benefits from new headlamps, grille, bonnet and bumper – all reflecting the latest Mercedes-Benz lineage.
The revised R-class continues to come in both short and long-wheel base guise – the latter stretching to 5157mm and supporting a third row of seats to provide space for up to seven in a largely unchanged interior. It’s impressively spacious and versatile.
However, finding a parking space large enough to accommodate its exceptional width of 1922mm can prove difficult and begs the question as to why Mercedes-Benz hasn’t seen fit to equip it with side parking sensors like those available on the 5-series GT.
In a move that is crucial to its prospects of gaining sales momentum in the UK, Mercedes-Benz has also given its up-market MPV a new range of diesel engines in a line-up that supports both rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models, including the latest, high power version of its 3.0-litre V6 common rail unit.
With a gutsy 261bhp and 457lb ft of torque, it is clearly the pick of the engines offered in the heavily facelifted R-class, kicking out 40bhp and 81lb ft more than before while bringing a 2.9mpg reduction in overall consumption at 33.2mpg in the four-wheel drive R 350 CDI 4Matic driven here.
The R-class is also among the first models to benefit from a revised version of Mercedes-Benz’s 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox. Standard across the line-up, it gets a faster acting torque converter that now automatically decouples the engine at standstill for added fuel savings among other detailed changes.
What's it like?
Together, the new engine and gearbox provide the R 350 CDI 4Matic with an energetic step off and good turn of speed away from the traffic lights – the prodigious torque making light weight of its 2175kg kerb weight. Indeed, for such a big car it is quite lively and impressively smooth in continual stop/start conditions.
But with those oversize dimensions and a large turning circle, city driving is not where it excels. It is at a steady cruise out on the motorway where the luxury MPV finds itself most at home. With all that torque at just 800rpm above idle, it devours distance with consummate ease. But while mechanical refinement is always impressive there is a fair amount of wind noise around the large exterior mirrors at speed.
With four-wheel drive helping and a whole armada of electronic driving aids, the R-class hangs on remarkably well when driven hard over winding roads – better than the M-class and G-class with which it shares its underpinnings and is build alongside at Mercedes-Benz Tuscaloosa plant in the US.