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2006 Mercedes-Benz R350 Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mercedes-Benz

MODEL: Mercedes-Benz R350
ENGINE: 3.5-liter V6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 268 hp @ 6000 rpm/258 lb.-ft. @ 258 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
WHEELBASE: 126.6 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 203.0 x 77.5 x 65.2 in.
TIRES: 255/55R18
CARGO VOLUME: 85.0 cu. ft.
ECONOMY: 15.0 mpg test
PRICE: $48,000 (base, plus $775 destination charge)

Mercedes-Benz doesn’t call the sleek new R-Class mid-size sport utility anything but a sport ute. After all, it’s built in the same plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that builds the M-Class mid-size, so there is a strong connection there.

The R-Class, however, is sleeker, rides on a wheelbase that’s 12-inches longer than the M-Class, and is 15 inches longer overall. And while our tester had all-wheel drive, just like an SUV should have, it reminded me (and a few other observers) more of the crossover Chrysler Pacifica than a working SUV. Okay, I’ll admit the luxury R-Class probably fits in well with the Lexus RX or Infiniti FX, but it’s really more of a crossover.

On the other side of the coin, the R-Class is also a Mercedes-Benz, and therefore has superb handling and great ride quality. In fact, the handling of the R350 surprised me. We took it on our favorite handling course, and the R350 coped extremely well with tight and fast corners, with a minimum amount of lean or sway. In addition, the suspension is compliant enough to offer a smooth ride over rough surfaces.

We had the V6-equipped R350, with a 3.5-liter engine doling out 268 hp. A 5.0-liter V8 version is also available (R500), and that engine is rated at 302 hp. I found no dearth of power with the V6 and question whether the additional $7,500 for the V8 is worth it. It may be for you, though. The engine is essentially quiet, except when pushed to perform. Under normal driving conditions there is no noise intrusion into the cockpit, which was a pleasure. Nor was there any excessive wind noise or “thump-thump” from the tires hitting tar strips or small bumps in the highway.

The engine drives the wheels (all four in our tester) through a 7-speed automatic transmission. If you want, you can shift it in manual mode as well, with a small toggle switch on the right rear of the steering wheel. Don’t make a mistake, though, and flip the toggle on the left side; that one will change your radio station for you.

In automatic mode the gearbox is smooth with almost seamless shifts. We tried manual mode on the test road, but it seemed to offer no great advantage. It is strange, though, to see the numbers on the instrument panel readout keep climbing past “5” and all the way up to “7.”

In automatic mode, the shifter itself is simple and efficient. To go forward you push the lever down into “D.” For reverse, push it up. To park, you push a button on the end of the shift lever. It’s that simple. At times, it was almost too simple, because I kept wanting to go through the more standard P-R-N-D-L sequence.

The leather-covered wheel has audio and information screen controls on the front of it. The information screen’s readout is between the two major gauges on the instrument panel.

Those instruments include a speedometer and tachometer, with a small round fuel gauge inside the speedometer and a similar-sized digital clock in the tach. In addition, the navigation system screen has audio system readouts. I like Mercedes radios that have the station select. You push * and the station’s frequency and the radio automatically goes there. There is a way to preset a bunch of stations, but I never did figure it out, nor did I take the trouble to look in the owner’s manual to find out.

We had an excellent HVAC system, with controls for the driver and passenger. I was surprised there was no outside temperature readout, though.

There was nice wood trim on the dash, doors and center console. That center consol had a deep storage area that was big enough for CDs. There was also a small covered cubby in the front center of the console. There were two cup holders up front.

We had the three-row option that can allegedly seat seven, although the rear row passengers should be small. Second-row seating offered excellent leg room, but the third row was tight. The second row has its own sunroof, which was a nice tough.

Both the second and third row fold for increased cargo carrying capacity, which tops out at 85.0 cubic feet. The second row seats fold forward to provide access to the rear. Third row headrests are folded into the seat for better rearward visibility. There’s a space-saver spare under the cargo floor.

I liked the Mercedes-Benz R350, and don’t think I’d necessarily want the added power of the V8. It’s a well-designed vehicle with excellent handling and comfort.

2006 The Auto Page Syndicate