Steven Cole Smith, Contributor
"I know all 4,000 employees here by their first names," says Bill Taylor, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International — which essentially consists of the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama — "so long as I can get close enough to read their shirts."
Everyone at the plant, Taylor included, is clad in "teamwear," essentially slacks and golf shirts with first names stitched above the shirt pocket. Taylor's facility is home to the new Mercedes-Benz R-Class crossover vehicle, as well as the M-Class sport-ute.
Natural Resourcing The R-Class shares nothing with its corporate cousin, the Chrysler Pacifica, except a basic theme: long, hot dog-bun profile and three rows of two seats. And a thesis: a genuine genetic mix of minivan and sport-utility vehicle.
You'd think the R-Class would share quite a bit with the M-Class, being as how they roll down the same assembly line, but the two vehicles are far more different than alike. Powertrains are common — the newish 3.5-liter, 263-horsepower V6 (that would be the R350) and the veteran 5.0-liter, 302-horse V8 (the R500). And while there is an AMG package available, it's all cosmetic for now — a real AMG performance version, with a 6.3-liter V8, waits in the wings.
Due in October, the production R is pretty faithful to the concept Vision GST, or "Grand Sports Tourer," that debuted at the North American International Auto Show in 2002, minus the concept's 22-inch wheels and 360-hp AMG-massaged V8.
North America will get an AMG-tuned model in 2007, but until then, we're in pretty good shape with the R350 and R500 engines. The 3.5-liter V6 is eager to please, and while it lacks a bit of the punch of the venerable three-valve-per-cylinder V8, it's a genuine alternative. Both engines get the superb seven-speed automatic that is working its way across the Mercedes lineup. Those of us who have been doing this long enough to remember the old General Motors two-speed Powerglide automatic can't help but marvel at this electronically controlled seven-speed, which maximizes the power available from the R350's V6 to the point where the V8 is almost academic. Since Mercedes flatly says that it doesn't recommend towing with the R-Class, and has no data as to what its capacity might be if it did, the V8's torque advantage — 339 pound-feet to the V6's 258 — goes largely unnoticed with this transmission.
That's commendable since the R-Class is full-time all-wheel drive, and a bit on the plump side: The R350 weighs 4,766 pounds, and the R500 weighs 4,845 pounds. Still, given the dimensions — overall length is 203 inches, 8 inches longer than the Cadillac SRX and more than 4 inches longer than the Cadillac Escalade — the R-Class weight isn't out of line.
The AWD is intended to help on-road — no R-Class will be spotted at the end of the Rubicon Trail. There are three open differentials — front, center and rear — with torque distribution 50 percent to the front, 50 percent to the rear, in typical driving conditions. Loss of traction results in a redistribution of torque, to the point where one wheel can get it all. Coupled with electronic traction control, stability control, BrakeAssist and four-wheel discs with antilock, safety features are nicely integrated. And despite the weight of both R-Class models, big discs front and rear — ventilated front and rear on the R500, front only on the R350 — make braking these beasts pleasantly uneventful.
Suspension is four-wheel independent, with double wishbones up front, four links in the rear. With the standard suspension, body motion is well-controlled. Optional on both models, Mercedes' Airmatic air suspension system ensures just the right damping for all situations. Airmatic offers three distinct firmness settings. At speeds over 76 mph, the air suspension automatically lowers ride height a half-inch. On very rough roads — or, more likely, if you need to hop the curb at the country club — a switch on the dashboard can raise the vehicle by more than 3 inches. This is no sports car, but for what it is, Mercedes engineers did themselves proud.
Outside, the R-Class' styling — accentuated by an unapologetically thick horizontal crease that angles forward and down from the top of the taillight — does little to make the very long vehicle seem, well, less long. Rear doors are enormous. Somehow, it all kind of works, especially in lighter colors — in black, the R-Class looks funereal.
Inside, no complaints. Unlike the Pacifica, there's no real sensation from the driver seat that a whole lotta R is following you around. The interior is nicely executed, with leather upholstery, maple or burl walnut wood, and aluminum trim. Gauges are well placed, controls intuitive, though the gearshift lever is BMW 7 Series-like with a little stalk on the right side of the steering column. Shift buttons reside on the back of the steering wheel.
The three rows of seating are very well executed. The second-row seats are essentially captain's chairs, and there's a walkthrough between them to the rear row, unless you get the optional center console. Even the two rearmost seats are pretty comfortable for adults, and there's almost 10 cubic feet of luggage room behind them. Of course, the second- and third-row seats fold down.
Besides all the electronic safety equipment designed to keep you out of a collision, there are standard side curtain airbags for all three rows.
The Crossover Conclusion
Prices haven't been set, but the R350 will start at just under $50,000, and a fully loaded R500 should stay under $70,000. The R350 has plenty of standard equipment, plus 17-inch alloy wheels and P235/65R-17 tires. Upgrade to the R500, and you get 18-inch, five-spoke wheels with P255/55R-18 radials, bigger brakes, heated seats, a six-disc CD changer and TeleAid (the OnStar-like communications system), plus a few other features. Options include a rear-seat entertainment system, a power liftgate, Sirius Satellite Radio, a DVD-based navigation system and the air suspension.
You can also get that AMG appearance package, which consists of 20-inch tires and wheels and different front and rear bumpers.
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