Editor's note: This review was written in January 2011 about the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R350 Bluetec. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
As family-haulers go, the Mercedes-Benz R350 Bluetec is a nice rig — perhaps too nice for the sippy-cup-and-Cheerios gang. Even though the R350 doesn't fit nicely into a defined category such as minivan, SUV or crossover, it's nonetheless a practical car for the high-earning, minivan-averse family.
The R350 caters to families with its roomy cabin, compliant ride and available convenience features, but it sacrifices some utility in the name of style.
I tested the diesel-powered R350 Bluetec, and a gas V-6 engine is also offered. The diesel version starts at $51,740, but options made the as-tested price balloon to around $67,000. The R-Class' price range overlaps two of Mercedes' SUVs: the five-seat M-Class and the seven-seat GL-Class. The R-Class is available with seating for six or seven. To see a side-by-side comparison of these three models, click here.
Riding lower than a crossover but looking sleeker than a minivan, the R-Class might best be described as a large wagon. It's nearly as long as Mercedes' flagship S-Class full-size sedan, but wider and taller.
The front of the R-Class has been significantly updated for 2011. It features a new grille, new headlights and new bumper styling. Taken as a whole, the changes give the R-Class a stronger, more substantial look. It's a big improvement, and it works well with the rest of the exterior design, which carries over mostly unchanged.
Ride & Handling
One of the best aspects of the R350 Bluetec is its comfortable ride. It can feel floaty on undulating roads and exhibits noticeable body roll when cornering, but the suspension tuning's emphasis on comfort is the right choice for a people-mover like this.
On the highway, the R350 settles down nicely. It feels planted and would be an easy-driving steed on a family road trip.
Classic Mercedes steering tuning yields limited feedback, which isn't out of the ordinary for a luxury-oriented family-hauler. The wheel itself spins smoothly, and the moderate amount of effort required to turn it feels appropriate.
As if the R-Class' styling didn't make it unique enough, it's also one of the few models in the U.S. with an available clean-diesel engine. The diesel V-6 is rated 25 percent better in EPA-estimated combined fuel economy than the gas V-6 engine, but as diesels are prone to do, it also makes more noise. All versions of the R-Class have all-wheel drive.
I've been impressed with the immediate power delivery in many modern diesels, but you don't get that feeling in the R350 Bluetec. The specs say the torque is there — 400 pounds-feet at a low 1,600 rpm — but it seems to arrive late. It's not a problem on the highway, though, as the diesel has plenty of reserve power for passing.
The R-Class' 210-horsepower, 3.0-liter diesel V-6 is clean enough to be sold in all 50 states. Mercedes' Bluetec technology reduces diesel emissions by squirting a solution — AdBlue urea — into the exhaust gases. This process creates ammonia, which in turn changes up to 80 percent of nitrogen oxides (a pollutant that contributes to smog) into nitrogen and water, according to Mercedes. You'll consume less fuel with the diesel V-6, too. It gets an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg city/highway, whereas the gas-powered R-Class gets 15/19 mpg on required premium gas. The same diesel V-6 engine is also offered in the M-Class, where it's rated 18/25 mpg, and the GL-Class, which returns 17/21 mpg.
The diesel R-Class costs $1,500 more than the base gas version, but the diesel's greater efficiency should make up the price difference in a little more than two years, based on current fuel prices and assuming it's driven 15,000 miles a year.
There are some nice, high-grade materials in the R-Class' cabin, but it's showing its age and would have benefited from an update like the exterior received.
The most disappointing part of the cabin is the optional Comand system, which controls the navigation and audio systems, among other features. Unlike some other Mercedes models, including the S-Class and E-Class, that have the system's controller knob on the center console, the R-Class utilizes a keypad on the dash. It's a bit half-baked — and not nearly as easy to use.
Comfy front bucket seats are a plus, and the second row is downright huge; in terms of legroom and overall comfort, it's as accommodating as an S-Class. Six seats in three rows are standard, but an optional seven-seat configuration adds a narrow seat between the second-row buckets.
The third row is roomy enough. I'm 6-foot-1, and I could sit back there with the second row scooted forward some.
There's not much cargo room when all three rows of seats are up — 15.2 cubic feet, which is about what you'd get in a midsize sedan's trunk — and that lack of space might make it hard to pack for a family road trip. You get considerably more room in a three-row minivan, like the Chrysler Town & Country (33 cubic feet) or Toyota Sienna (39.1 cubic feet). Folding the Mercedes' third row yields 42.2 cubic feet of space, and there's 85 cubic feet when both the second and third rows are down.
The R-Class received a Good overall score — the highest rating possible — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. It hadn't yet undergone IIHS' new roof-strength test as of publication.
Standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the first and second rows, side curtain airbags for all three rows, antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, active head restraints for the front seats, and Pre-Safe. In the event of a likely collision, as determined by braking and stability system sensors, Pre-Safe cinches the seat belts and adjusts the position of the front seats for optimal occupant protection. A blind spot warning system is optional.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
R350 Bluetec in the Market
One look at Mercedes' 2010 sales numbers is all you need to understand the R-Class' niche status. In a year when the automaker's midsize M-Class and full-size GL-Class SUVs sold around 30,000 and 20,000 copies, respectively, approximately 3,000 R-Class models left the lot. It's a stark example of the SUV's staying power in the U.S. market.
That said, if you're considering a luxury SUV but might be willing to step outside the SUV box, you'll probably find more to like in the R-Class than you think. It's an eminently sensible SUV alternative — especially if you never venture off-road.
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