2006 Mercedes-Benz R500: Six Passengers and a Six-Figure Income

Soccer moms never had it so good. Introducing the all new Mercedes R500. We just spent a week hauling people and stuff around in the slickest six-passenger vehicle on the market, and we figure this vehicle should be on everyone’s shopping list once baby number three is on the way.

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The R-Class is an all-new Mercedes series; plugging a hole at the upper end of the ‘progeny-prolific’ consumer market segment.

With a footprint that’s actually an inch longer than the flagship S-class, that the R500 boasts a smooth ride is no surprise. The assured handling characteristics, however, do raise eyebrows. The chassis is as stiff as a bank vault, and 255/55 rubber wrapped around 18″ rims give great grip-it’s a real thrill blasting past similar-sized but slower minivans and SUVs with complete confidence.

Blasting past pretty much anyone is easy in the R500. As the nomenclature suggests, the powerplant is a 5.0-liter V8, boasting 302 horsepower and 339 lb./ft. of torque. We clocked the 0 to 60 m.p.h. run at 7.6 seconds; the subtle growl of the exhaust adds a little bark to the R500’s bite. The R350 comes with a 268-horse V6; we’ve driven that model briefly as well, and found it doesn’t lack for grunt, either.

The R500’s sportiness factor is further enhanced with a couple of electronic gadgets as well. The Airmatic suspension is adjustable; stiffer shock-absorber response is a button-touch away. The seven-speed automatic also has a sport setting, offering crisper shifts at higher shift points-or you can shift yourself via buttons mounted behind the steering wheel’s spokes. Although most family chauffeurs will leave both systems in the Comfort setting when delicate passengers are on board, the ability to change the car’s character so easily will surely make the most of those moments alone behind the wheel.

The question of what exactly it is we were driving this week did cross the editorial mind, of course, whether we were tranquilly trucking the family around or really wringing it out on a solo run. The basic shape is that of a minivan, but even beyond the frantic insistence of the Mercedes PR flaks, we found or out reasons to eschew that descriptor. For one, it lacks sliding rear doors, and it’s not tall enough to walk around in-plus, who ever heard of a minivan that was this much fun to drive? The R-Class does have its share of SUV characteristics-standard all-wheel-drive, for instance-but it doesn’t really fit in this category, visually. It’s probably closest to a wagon, but then again, it’s not based on any one of the Mercedes sedan lines. In surrender, we could call it a segment-buster, or a crossover, we suppose…but in truth, it seems the R-Class has done what so many other new cars can only claim to accomplish-it’s created a whole new segment. Mercedes calls it a “sports tourer,” and since they’ve pretty much created the segment, we suppose we’ll have to acquiesce.

Like any family-friendly luxury ride, in any segment, the R500 boasts more than its share of toys. Although they’re becoming commonplace now, the nav system is one such piece of electronic frippery, especially since Mercedes’ unit lacks a touch-screen on the plus side, the DVD database includes more than the usual information, including listings for most local restaurants and hone numbers so you can call ahead.

One of our favorite new innovations in the luxury-car world today is the keyless starting system-and Mercedes’ ‘Keyless Go’ execution of the concept is perhaps the best we’ve seen. The standard fob sits in your pocket or purse, giving off a signal that unlocks the car doors as you pull the handle, and allows for starting the engine with the push of a single button. This makes getting in and out, and on the road, a seamless process-and makes locking your keys in the car an impossibility. A standard metal key is provided in case of battery drain.

An interesting discovery we made concerned a rather low-tech, if well-hidden, convenience in the one-size-fits-all front cupholders. Pull up on the card-holder in the middle, and a bottle opener is revealed. There’s no mention of this feature in the owner’s manual (at least not in this lawsuit-happy country of tough DUI laws), and we guess many owners will never even find it. Still, it’s pretty neat.

For sun worshippers, the R-Class features a trick panoramic glass roof, made up of two huge glass panels over almost the whole passenger compartment. A motorized sunscreen can be deployed to deflect the sun’s rays, giving a creditable impression of a simple hard-top-or, in more temperate climes, the front glass panel can be retracted over the rear at the touch of a button, to create one of the largest sunroofs in automotive history.

The front seats in our testers were themselves gadgets. An optional $780 “multi-contour” seat package adds adjustments for lumbar support, firmness, and side bolstering. A complicated switch pod sticking out of the seat’s fronts controls the air bladders inside, allowing you to tailor the support perfectly.

There’s plenty of gadgetry to keep rear-seat passengers occupied as well. Most notable is the entertainment system, which gives passengers in the second row two screens on which to watch DVDs or play an external video game system, and headphones with which to listen to their own audio or video selection. The second row also features heated seats, and its own climate control system.

The audio system is one to be proud of, too, and not just because it can broadcast three different programs to three different listeners at once. The sound is concert-hall quality, with a subwoofer over the spare tire for added bass response. Sirius satellite radio is integrated in, and can be accessed from either rear station even when not in use up front. And the single-CD slot, hidden behind the nav screen, is complemented by a 6-disc changer in the glove box-which itself hides away to make more space.

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The rearmost seats, in the third row, have to make do with the tactile comforts of top-quality leather, a couple of cupholders, and leg-, shoulder- and head-room that’s actually suitable for small adults. They lack seat heaters and their own climate control zone, although there are vents back there. Even the windows don’t go down, although they are on motorized hinges, controlled from the driver’s seat. No gadgets here, so make the most of this space by assigning it to your least-favorite friends, strapping baby-seats in (via the LATCH tethers), or folding them down for more luggage space.

Axiomatically, the very presence of so many electronic and hydraulic systems on board makes the likelihood of a breakdown much higher. Although Benzes are known for mechanical prowess, these automotive extras have recently claimed a toll in total reliability, and our tester was no exception. The motorized trunk hatch, which can be closed and opened by way of a button on the driver’s door or key fob, often failed to close securely without a shove, meaning the interior lights would stay on after we used the system, until we jumped back out to slam it shut ourselves. Another niggle-the sun screens in the rear door were a neat touch, but sometimes wouldn’t retract fully without encouragement-like an old tape measure.

Space is one selling point for the R-class-and not just for people. Even with all the seats up, there’s over 15 cubic feet of cargo room-comparable to a good-sized sedan. Fold the third row, and you get 42′; fold the middle row for an astounding 85′. A 4′ by 8′ sheet of drywall will fit easily back there-although the carpeting is probably too nice to take the risk.

Visibility in such a sizeable vehicle is inherently compromised, especially when you add in the deeply-tinted rear windows. Our tester had the Parktronic system, however, which warns of impending impact with an audible beep and a series of LED lights at each corner. Although the R-Class is lower than an SUV, the Escalade-trumping length make this system a good investment-skimp here and you’ll end up spending the same $750 at the body shop in short order.

In fact, there’s so much car/wagon/whatever here, we found ourselves wondering how Mercedes can sell the R-Class so cheap. Our tester stickered at $66,650-$55,500 buys the base R500, and the entertainment package ($790), the panoramic roof ($2390), Airmatic suspension ($1200), Keyless Go ($1,080), and a $350 iPod integration kit round out the package. Compared to the S-Class, that’s quite a value-and for well-off people who regularly have to haul a full complement of kids and gear around, the mere existence of a six-place Benz makes the price of entry irrelevant.

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