Preview Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

Facelifted all-wheel-drive wagon again boasts choice of gas or diesel power

by James M. Flammang

2011 Mercedes-Benz R350

HOBOKEN, New Jersey - A second look might be needed to affirm that the 2011 R-Class wagon has changed. Modifications for the new model year fall well short of a redesign, but the facelift does help give this full-size wagon a fresh aura.

The completely redesigned front end features a more upright grille. Running lights are integrated into front bumper, with LED lamps optional. R-Class models are built in Alabama, along with the GL-Class and M-Class.

Two versions are offered: an R350 with gasoline V-6, or R350 BlueTEC with diesel power. The diesel engine produces 210 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, versus 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet for the 3.5-liter gas V-6. Both models come with 4Matic all-wheel drive and a seven-speed automatic transmission.

Estimated fuel economy with diesel is 18 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway, versus 15-mpg city/19-mpg highway for the gasoline engine - clearly a substantial difference. No V-8 or AMG versions are available.

Europeans can get a short-wheelbase R-Class wagon, with a wider choice of engines. For the U.S. market, only the long-wheelbase configuration is offered.

Standard safety equipment includes PRE-SAFE, NECK-PRO, and eight airbags. Blind Spot Assist is a newly available feature for 2011.

Thomas Ruhl, chief engineer for R-Class development, calls this model an "SUV tourer [that] is in a league of its own." Buick's Enclave is the primary competitor, along with the Audi Q7.

Despite its size, the R-Class is quite easy to drive, delivering no real feeling of being too big for the lane. The moderately firm suspension yields a comfortable ride. Bumps are indeed felt, but they're snubbed immediately and effectively, transmitting a minimum of fuss to occupants. Steering feels somewhat light for an SUV-like vehicle, but not so light as to be irksome.

Virtually no evidence of the diesel engine is noted in the R320 BlueTEC, which responds much like a gas V-6, with ample energy that's wholly acceptable for any pass/merge maneuvers. Though the R320 BlueTEC feels like it's pushing a bit more weight, it has enough torque to do the job. Acceleration from zero has some spirit. For passing, it's roughly on par with the gas engine. Occasionally, it's possible to hear the tiniest touch of diesel clatter, but only momentarily.

The gas-engine R350 differs little from the diesel model. Tromp the gas pedal to pass, and response is definitely on the tame side. From a standstill it's swifter, but the diesel would beat it due to that engine's much higher torque. Neither will be mistaken for a speed demon even under the best of conditions, but who would expect (or need) them to be?

Yes, the gas R350 is quieter, and a little lighter-feeling overall, but not by much. Either way, the R-Class ranks as a terrific road wagon, offering excellent roadholding with minimal correction needed, maneuvering more adeptly than expected for its size. Driving qualities are particularly carlike. Overall, this is highly civilized and refined motoring, with the biggest drawbacks being size (plus gas-engine fuel economy) and price.

Up to seven passengers fit inside, but the R-Class can be fitted with a four-, five-, or six-passenger configuration. Thick pillars impede visibility, but passengers enjoy plenty of room. The driver has abundant space all around: head, leg, and elbow. Second-row seats have loads of space. Even getting into the third row isn't a great challenge, because total interior space is so great.

Radio controls are way too complicated, demanding study of the manual for even minimal-level operation. The speedometer isn't the easiest to read at a glance, but the electronic shifter works well enough. Plenty of buttons dot the center stack, but most are marked clearly enough. The navigation screen is excellent, as are the turn-by-turn instructions; but at times, it's not entirely clear when and where to make the next turn. Fortunately, if a mistake is made, the system recalculates immediately and provides new instructions that really help in getting back on course.

Prices are a bit higher than last year's models: $51,155 (including destination charge) for the gas-engine R350, versus $52,615 for the diesel-powered R350 BlueTEC.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang