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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Part sports saloon,
  part estate car and part
  luxury MPV — with a
  dash of Sports Utility
  Vehicle. That’s the
  Mercedes R-Class.
  And a newly-revised
  and simplified range
  is on sale now...”

FIRST LAUNCHED IN 2006, MERCEDES' R-CLASS is, in Mercedes' own words, "a luxury multi-activity vehicle". But it was expensive, with prices ranging from 36,517 up to 74,115, it was large and it had six seats three rows of two which didn't fit with customer's who preferred five- or seven-seaters. Mercedes, however, said it offered a totally new approach to the idea of versatility in a car, being part sports saloon, part estate car and part luxury MPV/ people-carrier with a dash, courtesy of its variable-height air-suspension and four-wheel drive system, of sports utility vehicle.

Sales worldwide didn't match expectations, so Mercedes has revised and simplified the latest range that is now on sale. In the UK, the
R-Class attracted just 1,031 sales in 2007 — down from the 1,154 in 2006. It sells against the equally large Audi Q7, the Chrysler Voyager, Land Rover Discovery, BMW 5-Series and even, perhaps, BMW's soon-to-be-launched X6.

For 2008, the latest R-Class has a simplified range with enhanced equipment levels offering better value for money. All now benefit from Mercedes-Benz AMG bodystyling, giving them a more sporting image.

To widen the R-Class's appeal, a new two-wheel drive entry-level model has been added with five seats as standard — the R280 CDI V6 187bhp turbodiesel, priced at 36,420.

Next in the revised line-up is the 221bhp R320 CDI V6 turbodiesel with five seats at 39,120 or with seven seats at 40,120. Specified with
a long wheelbase for extra load space, it costs 41,370.

Top of the range is the 383bhp 5.5-litre petrol V8 R500, and this model is available only in seven-seat, long-wheelbase form at 53,370. The previous R350 and R63 AMG variants are now no longer offered. New
R-Class customers have the choice of SE or Sport trim and equipment levels. Sport for long-wheelbase variants adds 1,500.

The revised five-door R-Class continues to be 'four cars in one' — sports saloon, estate, people carrier and SUV. But that is its problem: the design tries to be too many vehicle types. Which means it is always going to be a compromise of a vehicle; neither one thing nor the other.

That said, there is no getting away from the fact that, being an ex-pensive Mercedes, the R-Class is a quality product and, despite the fact that even the standard model is almost five metres long, nearly two metres wide and 1.6 metres high, it still looks sharply styled.
The addition of AMG body parts definitely endows it with a sleek, executive and sporting appearance.

The most popular models will, of course, be the diesel powered ver-sions. The 5.5-litre V8 petrol version really doesn't have much appeal because of its huge price, mammoth 311g/km CO2 emissions output and future running costs. The R-Class will still mostly be bought and run by businesses or business users, as well as chauffeur and private hire operators — and diesel models will be their first choice.

I can see the new configuration of two-wheel drive with a standard length wheelbase and a 187bhp CDI turbodiesel engine being more appealing at 36,420 to some private, well-off, status conscious family buyers. However, adding options to the vehicle such as leather uphol-stery, metallic paint, hands-free phone kit and burr walnut wood trim will push the price closer to 40,000 and even higher once the oblig-atory satellite navigation system (£1,760) is added.

Premium class looks, scarcity, interior space and driving refinement, plus the Mercedes-Benz pedigree, are all sound reasons to buy this unusual vehicle. Whilst the R280 CDI can accommodate five adults in some comfort with ample amounts of luggage/load carrying space (939-2,001 litres, thanks to the split and folding rear seats), the rear legroom is pretty tight for a luxury family car. However the high-up 'command' seating positions do give excellent visibility out of the vehicle. The build quality is impeccable, and all the controls and instruments are logically positioned so that, despite its size, for most
of the time it is an easy vehicle to drive.

This particular model — I tested the R280 CDI SE — may not have the magic-carpet ride conferred by the height-adjustable air suspension, but the double wishbone front set up and four-link rear system gives
a smooth and flat ride, although with some body roll and fore and aft pitching. Road noise absorption is particularly impressive and wind noise intrusion is, for such a big vehicle, pleasantly low. There is plenty of predictable grip, and the steering gives good feedback to the driver.

The standard equipment level is commendably high as well, and in-cludes front and side airbags, Neck Pro active head restraints, alarm, ambient interior lighting, Pre-Safe anticipatory occupant protection, anti-lock braking, stability handling control, automatic climate control, electrically-operated windows and door mirrors, automatic headlights and wipers, stereo radio and CD player (with eight speakers), alumin-ium interior trim and tinted glass.

The strong and refined 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engine produces 187bhp of power and 324lb ft of torque from just 1,400rpm, and is mated with Mercedes' 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic transmission operated
via an easy-to-use steering column gear selector or steering wheel gearshift buttons. It also has Speedtronic cruise control. This engine/ transmission combination proved ideal for all types of driving, from heavy traffic in towns and cities and country roads through to high speed motorways.

The R280 handles all these conditions in a relaxed manner. Fuel econ-omy should average 31.4mpg — 26.2mpg was the best my test car returned. Emissions are 238g/km — above the new 25-a-day 226g/km London Congestion Charge threshold — and the vehicle excise duty is in the top Band G which, from 1 April, means 400 per year. So it will be expensive to run.

The R-Class is very much a niche vehicle; one that's huge on image and pretty big in size, especially for town driving. It's undeniably stylish, refined and of high quality and has a smooth and responsive engine. The ride is comfortable and it's good to drive. And, yes, although it will be expensive to buy and run, that's hardly likely to put off prospective buyers with around 40,000 to spend on a car. How you define it I still don't know, and because it doesn't fit neatly into any particular sector it is likely to be low on the radar for consideration by customers. Apart, of course, from current Mercedes owners. — David Miles

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Mercedes-Benz R280 CDI SE | 36,420
Maximum speed: 130mph | 0-62mph: 9.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.2mpg | Power: 187bhp | Torque: 324lb ft

CO2 238g/km | VED Band G 300 | Insurance group 18
Visit Mercedes' website Click to go there now

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