"It's a station wagon."
"No, it isn't."
"Yes, it is."
"No, it isn't."
"Are you sure? It looks like a station wagon."
"I'm sure. The R-Class is not a wagon, it's a sports tourer. No station wagon has ever had four bucket seats and a third row that faces forward. Plus, this vehicle has rounded rear styling. A station wagon is square in the back."
"OK, so it's a station wagon with four bucket seats, a third-row bench that faces forward and rounded rear styling."
"No, you pea brain, the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a sports tourer. It's a new kind of vehicle that changes everything. It combines the best features of a car, a minivan and a sport-utility vehicle, which has never been done before. Now repeat after me, it's a sports tourer, not a station wagon. It's a sports tourer, not a station wagon. Follow the watch. You're getting very sleepy."
"Now we get it. It's like the Chrysler Pacifica."
"No, that's different."
"How's that different?"
"It's at a lower price point."
"You mean it's cheaper."
"Do you want to try and hypnotize us again?"
Ron Mueller, the manager of luxury sport-utility and touring vehicles at Mercedes, didn't really call us a pea brain or try to hypnotize us, but the rest of that exchange actually happened as we drove this fully loaded, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink, V8-powered Pewter R500 through the rolling hills of central California's Carmel Valley. For the better part of a sunny California morning, Mueller, whose dream is to someday restore a 1969 Camaro SS convertible, laid on the sports tourer sales pitch, but we weren't buying.
Now, after living with the R500 for 10 days, we're sold. Not on the whole sports tourer thing, we still think that's a bunch of marketing mumbo jumbo, we're sold on the R-Class itself. Mueller wasn't lying. It really does combine the best features of a car, a minivan and a sport-utility vehicle. And while the Pacifica may have done that first, the R-Class does it better.
Six Fly First Class
The R500 is big. Bigger than it looks. And way bigger than it feels from its driver seat. At 203 inches long, the R500 dwarfs a Cadillac Escalade by 5 inches. Mercedes says around 64 percent of that length is available for people. That may or may not be true, but the R500 is dang roomy inside.
It seats six comfortably. Not two tall people, two medium-sized folk and a couple of Gary Colemans, but six actual full-grown adults. Although the second-row captain's chairs passed the enormous rear-facing child seat test with room to spare, it's the usefulness and comfort of the third row that's most impressive. Mercedes says there's more than 30 inches of legroom back there, which is a class-leading number, plus the rear-quarter windows swing open with the press of a button for added ventilation.
"I don't know if I would ride to Vegas back here," said one third-row pilot. "But going to dinner would not be an issue."
Seat comfort is high for all on board, and Mercedes has made third-row access easy by expanding the length of the rear doors and putting both second-row seats on spring-loaded hinges. They jump out of the way with the flick of a lever, and snap back into place just as easily. The long rear doors can be a problem in tight parking spaces, but Mercedes felt the additional access was worth it.
Mercedes has also supplied each seat position with a cupholder, seat adjustments, armrests, climate control vents and side curtain airbags. And comfort options on our test car added a third zone to the climate control system, the largest sunroof we've ever seen and a unique rear-seat entertainment center that adds two screens that can be used exclusively from one another. Junior can be watching Scarface on one screen, while little Mary simultaneously plays Resident Evil 4 on the other.
Upfront, Mom and Dad get pampered as well with a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, toasty seat heaters, a navigation system and satellite radio. The ability to start the car with the key in your pocket is also a nice luxury, but the coolest things are the front cupholders. They're huge. Big-Gulp-and-beyond huge. And there's also wait for it a built-in bottle opener. Too cool.
Room for Everything
But moms with small children aren't the only market for the R-Class, according to Mueller, although late-forming affluent families are a target. Mercedes also hopes to attract socialite empty-nesters with this vehicle.
People like Phyllis Hellwig, 60, who opened the R500's big back door, flipped the second-row seat forward, took one look at the roomy third row and said, "Wow, even my old lady friends can climb in there."
Behind that third-row bench, which is split 50/50, is 15.2 cubic feet of cargo room, about the same amount of room in the trunk of an S-Class. Drop the third row, which takes two flicks of a finger, and that space grows to 42.2 cubic feet. Remove the center console, which is really easy, and fold the two second-row captain's chairs, and that space grows again to 85 cubic feet. If you need more, you probably know the lyrics to "Convoy" and possess a commercial driver license.
We should also mention the power liftgate, which impressed Phyllis, and the cargo area's ability to swallow a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood, which did not.
We began our 10 days with the R500 by driving it 332 miles from Carmel, California, down to our Santa Monica office, a road trip that perfectly displayed its ability to eat interstate.
The trip was executed in supreme comfort. The cabin is quiet, its steeply raked windshield provides awesome visibility and the front seats are shaped to perfection. We also averaged 18.5 mpg, and made the trip on one tank of premium.
As much as we like the optional Airmatic suspension, the differences between its three settings are slim. About 100 miles south of Carmel, we decided the normal or middle setting was perfect, and we never really messed with it again.
The R500's 5.0-liter single-overhead-cam V8 seems to have been powering Mercedes models since spats were cool, but it remains one of our favorite engines. Here it's partnered with the company's equally venerable full-time all-wheel-drive system and its new seven-speed automatic. Mercedes says 35 percent of the R-Class' components are shared with the ML-Class sport-utility vehicle, and this powertrain is a large part of that. This is the same setup you would get in an ML500.
As satisfying off idle as it is at its 6,000-rpm redline, the V8 is rated at 302 hp at 5,600 rpm and 339 lb-ft of torque at 2,700 rpm. It's plenty. Despite the R500's portly 4,845 pounds, it sprints from zero to 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 91 mph. That's about the same performance as we've measured for the BMW X5 4.8is, which has 53 more horsepower than the R and a fraction of the cargo room.
The seven-speed transmission has a lot to do with that performance. Although we think it could downshift a little quicker, it's geared perfectly and clicks off swift upshifts when the driver has his foot down.
We tested the R's handling with the suspension in the Sport setting, and were pleased with the vehicle's agility. Although its steering is a little slow, body roll is well controlled, and the R's all-wheel drive, standard 18-inch wheels and tires and ESP stability control give this very large vehicle surprising grip. We managed a best slalom run of 57.4 mph, which means the R outhandles most SUVs.
It can outstop them, too. Big four-wheel disc brakes, with 13.8-inch front rotors and standard ABS and BrakeAssist, haul this big vehicle down from 60 mph in just 126 feet.
Around town, those strong dynamics combine with a very tight turning circle to make the R-Class much more city-friendly than any SUV its size.
A League of its Own for a While
For a short while, the R-Class will have this premium sports tourer thing all to itself. On some level, the V6-powered R350 might compete with the still cheaper Pacifica, but the R500, which has a base price of over $56,000, is in a class by itself. That is until the Audi Q7 and other competitors from BMW, Lexus and Lincoln come to market over the next two years.
Until then, the only premium sports tourer choice is an excellent one. Pricey, too. The sticker price of our nearly loaded R500 test vehicle approached $75,000.
But if the idea of driving a station wagon still makes you cringe, then we suggest you listen to the great Eugene Levy, who in the cinematic magnum opus National Lampoon's Vacation said, "Now, I owe it to myself to tell you, Mr. Griswold, that if you are thinking of taking the tribe cross country, this is the automobile you should be using. The Mercedes-Benz R500. You think you hate it now, but wait till you drive it."
We're paraphrasing of course.
2006 Mercedes-Benz R500
Components: The R500's 440-watt Harman Kardon Logic7 stereo with an in-dash single-CD player, six-disc glovebox-mounted CD changer, rear-seat volume controls, 11 speakers and a rear-mounted subwoofer is available as a stand-alone $790 option, or as part of the $4,400 Premium Package. The package is expensive, but includes non-entertainment items like a glass roof, power rear hatch, navigation system and power rear-quarter windows. A weather band is also included and our R500 had optional Sirius Satellite Radio.
Simple music will only keep the kiddies distracted so long so our test car also had an optional rear-seat entertainment package. Checking that option on the order sheet adds $3,000 to the price and includes a DVD entertainment system with individually controlled screens and headphone connections integrated into the back of the front-seat headrests. The system also comes with two sets of RCA input jacks so you can play video games or plug in a camcorder. You can also get the sound system as a stand-alone $790 option.
Performance: Harman Kardon along with Mark Levinson are shaping up to be the industry standard when it comes to in-car audio. This Harman Logic7 system sounds great as it offers digital surround sound enhanced by a total of 12 speakers. It isn't true 5.1 surround but standard two-channel CDs (the kind most of us have) sound very good.
The sound is sharp, clear and free of distortion. The rear-mounted subwoofer provides deep bass but we wish it were punchier; it just doesn't have the kick we've experienced with other Harman systems. Still, the sound quality is excellent and appropriate for a vehicle of this caliber. Even audiophiles will be pleased. The best sound comes when the Logic7 surround is turned on but we found that turning that feature off enhanced some types of harder rock music as it increases the sound presence.
The controls for the audio system are mostly intuitive but there are too many buttons of the same shape and size. We like how Lexus uses a large and prominent rocker switch for CD track up/down and radio station adjustment. The R500's setup looks cleaner but is less functional. On the other hand we like how you can navigate radio stations one digit at a time (it doesn't default to the seek mode) and the display screen is big and easy to read.
We're not crazy about a glovebox-mounted CD changer, especially when every $21,000 Mazda and Ford seems to have a dash-mounted unit. However, Mercedes meets owners halfway with an additional single-CD player mounted just behind the head unit's display screen.
The rear-seat DVD system is also excellent as it offers two separate screens for each rear-seat occupant (there are only two seats). The two screens offer each passenger their own volume control, power switch and brightness adjustment. This is truly first-class living. The system also has the option of receiving a television signal but our test car was not equipped with it. The buzz kill in all this is the fact that the rear-seat headphones are not wireless. It may be a fussy little detail but considering the R500's price we'll take the name-calling in stride.
Worst Feature: No in-dash CD changer.
Best Feature: Crystal-clear sound quality from the stereo.
Conclusion: Despite a few minor quirks, the R500's Harman Kardon audio system sounds as clear as the final school bell signaling the beginning of summer. It's well worth the extra money for those who insist on punctuating drive time with their own soundtrack. — Brian Moody
Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin says:
Parents, rejoice. Mercedes actually designed this new crossover vehicle with third-row usage in mind.
First, the second-row seats are spring-loaded, and folding them out of the way is a breeze. (Attention all automakers: Copy this design). Then there's enough space between second-row seats and the door frame for the third-row passenger to climb in and out without twisting into a pretzel. Combined, these features turn the simple act of entering and exiting the third row from a chore, which it usually is in most SUVs and minivans, into what it should be: unremarkable. What's more, the third-row seats are more spacious and comfortable than any I've seen, with generous legroom.
This "adult-worthy" third-row is made even more so by the R-Class' massive panorama sunroof. With the sun revealed, second- and third-row passengers may feel a bit like they're riding in a greenhouse, but in a good way. On the flipside, those who don't worship the sun will find built-in second- and third-row side window sunshades among the dozens of small details that make riding in the R-Class a pleasure. For what is true luxury except the ability to control one's environment?
There were some impractical annoyances. DVDs load in the base of the rear center console, where neither drivers nor seated children can easily reach them. The rear doors are massive (think parking-lot dings), and the navigation and audio controls are toggle- and button-based. For this much money, I expect a touchscreen. The placement of the cruise control stalk was irritating. But that, like the abrupt throttle tip-in, is a standard-issue Benz characteristic that doesn't bother everyone.
The interior is clean-lined and the infinite seats adjustments could make anyone comfortable. The materials are, of course, excellent. (Seriously, I think the patterned carpet is the same one that's in my family room.) The "Pewter and Macadamia Nut" (brown and yellow) interior color combination struck me as weird and, well, puke-colored. But I guess some parents would consider that a plus.
Bottom line: If you need to carry six in luxury, the R-Class is a happening vehicle. If you can afford it, buy it.
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
It feels just like you're behind the wheel of an S-Class. That was my first thought after taking a spin in the R500. And yes, that's a good thing. For a vehicle as big and spacious as the R500, the ability to remain light on its feet is quite an accomplishment. Put the suspension in "sport" mode and it can whip around a freeway ramp as quick as most sedans; certainly quicker than any SUV. Dial up the softest suspension setting and it turns into the ultimate road trip machine.
I went domestic and took it to the grocery store, too. Even with its tight turning radius it doesn't fit easily into parking spaces and it's only a matter of time before you whack someone with its huge rear doors. The cargo area swallowed 10 bags of food easily enough, but there wasn't much in the way of hooks or holders — at least nothing like your average minivan.
As much as I liked how it drove and appreciated its supreme level of comfort, I still can't get over its odd styling. It attracted plenty of attention, but I'm guessing it's because it measures 17 feet long and has a Mercedes badge on it. If I had a family to haul around I would love to have a vehicle like the R500, I just wouldn't want one that looked like the R500.