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2006 Mercedes-Benz R500: A People-Hauler for the Other Half

The people at Mercedes Benz must be working overtime. In the last couple years alone, the boys in Stuttgart have brought to market several all-new vehicles–think CLS-class, B-class, the upcoming baby-ML-class, and this new R-Class. Mercedes calls it a “grand sports tourer” or “crossover,” based upon the unibody construction and driving dynamics. Other pundits have ventured that it resembles a conventional minivan, although it does lack the minivan’s requisite sliding rear doors.

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For all intents and purposes, this R-Class is a people-hauler. There’s a hint of SUV in the styling, but in truth, the long, sleek body resembles a Bullet Train more than anything else. Inside, there’s more Town & Country than M-class in the layout. There’s room for seven inside, plus cargo and gear–the R-class has more space than any Mercedes Benz product in recent history. Clearly, this vehicle–whatever you want to call it–was designed with passenger and cargo space as a primary consideration. When you get in, walk back to front over the humpless floor, tap the electronic column shifter, and start to drive, you’ll figure that out for yourself. And quite certainly, this is the nicest, best-equipped people-hauler we’ve ever had the privilege of piloting.

As with any similar review, we’ll start with the interior. There seems to be twice as much room inside than in the G-class SUV, and it’s all useful. Even the third row is okay for adults, and the folding seats in both rear rows lend a versatility outmatched only by DCX’s own (conspicuously absent) Stow-N-Go system. Storage space is impressive; there’s almost 16 cubic feet just behind the third row, and 85 with all seats folded. There’s a huge moonroof up front, and the side windows in the middle are equally expansive–and roll all the way down! Seats are a tactile treasure, with leather and suede wrapping a supportive frame. Too bad the seating position up front is more akin to a bus driver’s than anything else. The requisite gadgets and luxury touches you’d expect are present, including park-assist, adjustable ride height, and even shocks with an on-the-soft-side Sport setting and a pillow-like Comfort setting. A neat optional DVD entertainment system features dual screens behind the front headrests, and each can depict a different input (movie & video game, for instance). Finally, further proof that this is the best people-hauler money can buy: the R500 has the most, and best, cupholders of any MB product we’ve tested.

Possibly the most (only?) disappointing feature in our $59,675 test vehicle was Mercedes’ deplorable navigation system. With no touch-screen, this system is outdated and difficult to use; even the Honda Civic is miles ahead here. Our advice: skip it and invest in a Thomas Guide.

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As far as the outside goes, well, close your eyes and imagine using that digital morphing video technology on an E- and M-class into a one-box shape, and you’ve got it. Actually based on the M-class, the R-class shares no body panels with other Mercedes. It is elegant like all Benzes, sleek like all Benzes, and has all the typical Benz styling touches you’d find on the other models–but the one-box shape is unmistakable. Actually, we do still like it, especially compared to the rest of the field in the soccer-mom crowd.

The R-Class we drove was the 302-horse V8 R500 model (a 268-hp R350 is available at $48,775). We admire this motor; it’s bulletproof and torquey, although the new 3.5-liter is by far the more advanced engine. In this application, mated to a 7-speed automatic, it pulls like a freight train; almost unstoppably powerful, although by no means zippy. It gathers its speed quickly, though–sixty miles per hour comes in six and a half seconds–which makes the somewhat inaccurate steering that much more noticeable. That imprecise steering is the biggest dynamic faux pas here; the R500 otherwise handles better than any minivan extant, and better than most SUVs, if with a rather soft ride.

One SUV-like trait: the R-class comes with standard all-wheel-drive. This is the same system from the M-class; it can distribute torque to any one wheel with traction. This should theoretically make for more secure handling, although we were unwilling to test its limits on a dry, sunny day. Enough that the security is there for rainy days.

Realistically, the closest thing to the new R-class already on the road is sister-corporation Chrylser’s Pacifica. Of course, that wannabe SUV is itself actually based upon a minivan platform. And while the Chrysler maybe pulls off the truck-like look better, the R-class doesn’t suffer from the underpowered, under-luxuried stigma of the Pacifica. If you need to haul six people and their gear in Mercedes-Benz luxury and style, there is no better vehicle out there.

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