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Click for pictures“The Holy Grail of car
  manufacturing has to
  be the creation of a
  ‘one model does it all’
  vehicle. Many have
  sought it and failed.
  Now Mercedes-Benz
  gives it their best shot:
  The new R-Class.
  But can one car really
  play all roles?

MERCEDES-BENZ SAID this week that they classify their new R-Class range as a 'grand sports tourer'. Speaking at the media introduction of righthand drive models — prior to their UK on-sale date of 6 April — Mercedes said: "The 2.2-tonne, six-seat R-Class is a totally new premium vehicle that combines functional roominess for leisure and travel. In addition it has the dynamics and elegance of a sporty saloon".

Mercedes said also that the new model range combines the flexible seating configuration of an MPV, the road presence and four-wheel drive functions of an SUV, high performance petrol and diesel engine options in keeping with its sports car performance capabilities and
the high quality interior, ride and seating comfort of a large saloon or estate car.

Dermot Kelly, Managing Director of the Mercedes Car Group in the UK, added: "Although the R-Class combines the best and most versatile features of very different models, this is no 'compromise' vehicle. It
will create a whole new sector. One of our brand values is innovation and the R-Class underlines this."

In the UK new car sales sector for cars costing in excess of 30,000, Mercedes said that 40 per cent of sales are for SUVs, 25 per cent are saloons and 7 per cent are estates — while just 1 per cent of the market is accounted for by MPVs. Tellingly, the new R-Class combines all of the features offered by these different vehicles in just one model.

The majority of UK customers buying the new R-Class, says Mercedes, will be conquest sales and it is not thought that many of their existing customers will be moving from other models in the Mercedes range —
a line-up of vehicles that already offers 21 different styles and types of bodyshells. Although Mercedes was playing coy this week, when it came to the number of expected R-Class sales in the UK it looks as though around 2,500 units will be sold here this year.

The new R-Class completes the 'Sports Tourer' family from Mercedes that currently includes the A-Class and B-Class model ranges. Prices for the new R-Class models range from 38,475 upto 51,490. Optional SE and Sport upgrades add a further 2,950, and between 80 to 90
per cent of UK R-Class customers are expected to order the SE or Sport upgrades. There is also a further comprehensive range of extra cost items so owners can tailor their new R-Class to their exact requirements.

The R-Class comes in two wheelbase lengths: Standard and Long. The Long wheelbase model has a wheelbase with an extra 235mm of length, giving more legroom for the middle row passenger and easier access
for the second and third row passengers. The overall length of the Standard models is 4,922mm and the Long variants are 5157mm. The Long wheelbase models are naturally more expensive — costing 1,500 more than comparable Standard wheelbase versions.

Both wheelbase configurations have flexible seating for up to six passengers using three rows of two seats. The middle and rear rows
of seats can be folded down to provide a flat load carrying floor area. Seventy per cent of UK customers are expected to choose the long wheelbase models and 60 per cent will opt for the relatively-new 320 CDI diesel engine. Although around 25 per cent of registrations will come from fleet sales, Mercedes expects the vast majority of cus-tomers to be private buyers or user-chooser company car customers.

All models have full-time 4MATIC four-wheel drive and a seven-speed 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission. By using a seven-speed trans-mission, the engines need 20 per cent less rpm to deliver improved fuel economy. Much of the drivetrain for the new R-Class is similar to that used by Mercedes for their latest upmarket 4x4 — the M-Class.

At launch the R-Class will be available with three engine options: the
R 320 CDI diesel with a 3-litre, 6-cylinder 220bhp unit; the R 350 with a 3.5-litre 6-cylinder 268bhp petrol engine; and the R 500, which makes good use of Mercedes' 5-litre 8-cylinder 301bhp petrol unit.
Two further engines will be added to the R-Class range later this year — the R 280 CDI diesel, and the R 63 AMG petrol.

Designed and built in the USA, Mercedes-Benz's new R-Class is the first to market in this 'new' sector. Similar multi-talented vehicles due to go on sale soon include the Audi Q7, BMW V5 and the Maserati Kubang GT. Other more conventional competitors are the Range Rover Sport, Porsche Cayenne and both the saloon and estate versions of the BMW 5/7 Series and Audi's A6/A8 ranges.

Mercedes also announced their next new model range for the UK — the heavyweight GL off-roader — will go on sale in September this year. Certainly well-heeled buyers are going to be spoilt — and thoroughly — for choice in 2006!

But back to the R-Class. This is a big vehicle with a big image — visually, it is very impressive. I can see the appeal to a wide range of customers, from VIP company transport for chauffeured executives to family use and, as it is all-wheel-drive, there may be a number of owners attracted to it who feel under pressure to move out of what are perceived to be 'anti-social' 4x4s into something that looks less in-your-face and more big car/MPV.

The customary luxury status of the three-pointed star and the ver-satile seating will, by themselves, be big reasons to buy this vehicle. Without a doubt, the Long version is by far the most practical. If you want six luxury seats or less seats and extensive load space, it is ideal at a price. However — in the way the seats are accessed or folded away — I'm not convinced that the packaging of the seating is actually 'class-leading'. Furthermore, with all six seats in use any luggage space is minimal.

On the plus side, the R-Class is filled with luxury and safety items so you do get to travel in a great deal of style. Being all-wheel drive it holds the roads well, giving excellent adhesion even on the flooded roads we encountered this week. The jury is out, though, on whether the optional AirMatic suspension really works. Where it was fitted to our test models, the Sport setting needed to be selected to minimise the soft and rather 'detached' ride.

There was also considerable pitching fore and aft — which might not be appreciated by passengers — and it did nothing to enhance the driving dynamics. Some other journalists didn't agree but personally I wouldn't bother, much preferring the conventional system. Sticking with the conventional set-up saves money on what is already an expensive vehicle.

Pick of the range for me was the expected best-selling version, the 320 CDI Long wheelbase with SE specification. Priced at 42,925, this too came with a whole host of extra cost options. Everything from a DVD navigation system to heated front seats and larger, 19-inch alloy wheels that together pushed the price up to 48,315.

The recently-introduced 3-litre V6, direct-injection, turbocharged diesel engine is a real gem, and currently probably the best around. With the excellent 7-speed auto transmission and four-wheel drive,
its 220bhp and substantial 376lb ft of torque (on tap from 1,600rpm) are more than adequate for this big car. Top speed is 134mph, and
the 0-62mph acceleration time of 8.8 seconds is impressive.

The installation of the diesel engine really is first class. It is so quiet that there's no indication that it is a diesel unit at all — something
that is creeping in at all levels of the market. And it is delightfully res-ponsive. Wherever you drive, either on the open road or in town, it's an excellent combination.

The rejuvenated Mercedes brand continues to turn out truly impressive new models and new or revised engines as they fight back against the likes of BMW, Audi and Aston Martin. And yes, you can definitely add the R-Class to the list.

I know it's a niche product for well-heeled corporate or private buyers, but it is mostly very impressive. So, if you don't mind that traditional MPVs have easier to fold seating arrangements and you can afford it, then the new R-Class has a lot you'll like. It's big, relatively roomy, stylish, has loads of safety equipment as standard and — my earlier comments about the AirMatic suspension aside — is good to drive. Oh yes, and it's a Mercedes through and through. — David Miles

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Mercedes-Benz R 320 CDI L SE | 42,925
Maximum speed: 134mph | 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Test MPG: 26.8mpg | Power: 220bhp | Torque: 376lb ft

Visit Mercedes' website Click to go there now

---------------------------------------------------------- Mercedes-Benz R 320