The Mercedes R-Class was introduced back in 2006, a time where minivan sales where plummeting and crossovers were coming out of every design studio. It was no surprise that Mercedes wanted a part of the action, made strong from their alliance with Chrysler, a leader in the minivan market. What was more surprising was the product. The R-Class was a self proclaimed ’Sport Cruiser’. The R-class was touted as a vehicle half way between the comfortable minivan and the smaller and more stylish crossover.
The R-Class looks a lot like an American minivan re-engineered by the Germans to fit the US crossover market. Its overall shape and size fits minivan standards, but Mercedes ingeniously replaced the family vehicle attributes with sporty design cues. The stretched rear passenger door swings open instead of the usual sliders. The third row windows adopt a stylish elliptical shape coming right out of the very hyped Mercedes CLS. In fact, all R-Class trims feature a full AMG body kit including oversized alloy wheels and the front end receives a grill style that is only present on the most expensive and sportiest models of the three spokes star brand. There are no Mercedes signature designs missing on the R-Class. The result is a very sharp looking vehicle that will blend nicely next to the neighbor’s Range Rover. It would be unfair to categorize the R320 as minivan because there would simply be no competition.
The interior is also up to par with the most luxurious SUVs and sedans available on the market. Every square inch is covered with leather, precious wood or high quality plastics that almost look and feel like leather. The instrumentation is typical Mercedes Benz, with a nice blend of black and chromes with very easy to read dials. Most controls are easy to use and understand, but the multi-function onboard computer and the non-touch screen navigation system are a big frustration.
For instance the up and down arrows located on the steering wheel will only allow you to skip songs or stations if you have previously selected the sound system function with another set of two buttons located right next to them. Aren’t those arrows supposed to be on the steering wheel so you can avoid taking your eyes off the road in the first place? Another annoying piece is the navigation system. The pricey option will not grant you access to a touch screen. Not a big problem while browsing through the menus, but when the time comes to input an address, you are wasting serious time with a joystick input while most of the competition already offers touch screen keyboards. Nothing that you will not get accustomed to with time, but it is just a bit frustrating on such a high priced vehicle.
Our favorite gadget is the advanced cruise control, which allows you to setup your speed by increment of one to ten MPH via the Mercedes signature cruise control lever located on the steering column. This gadget is really a time and ticket saver when driving in an urban environment where the speed limits change every 5 miles. Of course the R-Class also offers a rear view camera and parking sensors but the many side windows make it quite easy to backup without the fancy technology. Talking about glass, the sunroof is gigantic and extends all the way to the rear seats. Unlike cheaper competing models, a very large portion of it can actually slide back and transform the R-Class into a planetarium or sundeck at your convenience.
But don’t be surprise if the rear passengers don’t ask for the open sky distraction because the rear entertainment system offers plenty of distractions. Two widescreen LCDs, located in the driver and front passenger headrests, are connected to an onboard DVD player with two independent RCA inputs allowing you to play separate movies on each screen. The DVD player can only be controlled by remote control, so you better not run out of batteries or the DVD system will become useless.
While you watch movies or play video games you can slide and recline the independent rear seats and enjoy the generous legroom. The middle passenger will not be as lucky because the central jump seat doesn’t slide nor recline. Should you have even more passengers, two averagely sized adults can jump into the comfortable third row seats. The legroom is limited, but long trips are not out of question. When using the third row seats the cargo space is limited, but you should still be able to fit four or five carry on bags without a problem. Note that this people mover can be transformed into a ‘stuff’ mover very easily, as all the seats can fold flat in just a few minutes.
Behind the superb but optional 4-way electrically adjustable leather and wood steering wheel, the driver will have no problem to find the perfect driving position. However, the very slanted windshield might annoy front passengers taller than 6 feet. The headroom remains reasonable but the feeling of space is greatly reduced because the top of the windshield is so close to your face.
As soon as you turn the ignition key you will see an unusual icon on the dashboard. The icon will be unrecognizable for most US drivers who haven’t experience diesel engines for the past two decades. It looks like a cork screw and it is here to remind you that you are driving a diesel engine and that you should wait until this light turns off before turning the ignition key any further. The engine will start even if you don’t wait, but you are suppose to do so if you want to help your engine to start in severe cold weather for example. Our Mercedes is equipped with one of the first diesel engines to make its come back on US passenger vehicles. This new generation of diesel engine does not emit any black smoke or noise as you might remember from the 1980’s, but it still keeps all the advantages of diesel by providing more torque and better fuel economy. Our R320 CDI’s fuel consumption is rated at 21/28 mpg, a 32% improvement over its gas-fed counterparts. Which also means a cruising range of over 600 miles before needing to refuel. While the diesel engine might still emit some sounds similar to diesel trucks it is mostly silent and very enjoyable to play with. The engine is matted to a 7 speed automatic transmission that always finds the proper gear ratio for any situation. The extra gears not only bring better fuel economy but also much smoother down shift, as each ratio is so close to the next. The 3.2L diesel engine almost feels like a big 5.5L V8 and provides all the torque you will need to move the 5000lbs minivan. It sometimes sounds like you are driving a large Diesel truck, but that is just to remind you that you are driving a powerful vehicle.
The R320 handles very well for its size, thanks to the combination of the pneumatic suspension and the 4matic transmission. It feels well planted on the ground and surprisingly agile for such a tall and heavy vehicle. However, we didn’t find much difference between the two suspension settings: comfort and sport. But even with the most comfortable setting you should be able to cruise above speed limits and go trough sharp curves without any fear. Should something jump out of the bushes during your business or family vacation, the brakes are powerful and handling under strong breaking conditions is very neutral.
The more we drive it, the more we agree with Mercedes’ ‘Sport Cruiser’ concept. The Mercedes-Benz R320 CDI is powerful and comfortable in every aspect. It combines all the great qualities of a high-end luxury minivan, with the overall style of a sporty sedan.
If you can afford the hefty $66,000 price tag of our test vehicle, there are only three reasons you wouldn’t want an R-Class. One, you want to do serious off-roading. Two, if you like to take the on-ramp over 60 miles per hour. Three, if you don’t want to see a minivan in your driveway. And this last one is certainly what stopped most buyers from buying this wonderful vehicle. Go past the odd look and you will own one of the finest and most practical vehicles you can buy.
Exterior design features
Comfort (driving & seating)
Brake and steering feel
Cargo space with seats down
windshield too slanted
Navigation system obsolete
Price with options