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2006 Mercedes-Benz R350 Review

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2006 Mercedes-Benz R350

The first question most of my neighbors asked during the week that I had the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350 was ``What is it?'' Which is perfectly understandable. There really is nothing quite like it.

Mercedes-Benz calls the new R-Class a ``Grand Sports Tourer,'' and says it's all about design, dimensions, and dynamism. It combines features of a luxury sedan, a wagon, a minivan, and an SUV into a new type of vehicle.

There are two models in the R-Class lineup, the R350, powered by Mercedes-Benz's new 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V8, and the R500, with a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V8. Both models feature the 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission, permanent all-wheel drive, and a full complement of safety systems including a strong safety structure, a full suite of airbags, and traction and stability control.

At heart, the R-Class is all about comfort and interior space. Its footprint is similar in size to that of a premium luxury sedan, like the Mercedes S-Class. But there is considerably more interior space than in a full-size luxury sedan, with first-class accommodation for six large adults arranged in three rows of two. That means six six-foot tall people, not four adults in the first two rows and two small children as an afterthought in the rear. Like a minivan or SUV, the second- and third-row seats can be folded flat for cargo duty, although an R-Class is a little too upscale to want to use for carrying lumber or sheetrock, or making a dump run.

My R350 test vehicle had $10,000 worth of options, by no means the full complement. The most significant, and interesting, were the Airmatic suspension system and Panorama sunroof. With its driver-adjustable air springs, speed-sensitive steering, and active shock damping, the Airmatic gives the R a true European luxury car ride, and very good handling characteristics considering its size. But, from the perspective of the best seats in the house - the second row - the Panorama sunroof is the must-have option. It gives second- and third- row passengers an experience like riding in an old dome rail car, with excellent visibility not only to the sides and front, but above as well. And the glass is dark enough that it should reduce heat and glare on summer days.

What is it? Perhaps the Mercedes-Benz R-Class is the next development in luxury transportation.

APPEARANCE: Automotive taxonomy is not an exact science, and vehicles like the R-Class don't make it any easier. Basically a two-box shape like an SUV, minivan, or wagon, it has its own distinct proportions that are unlike any of those vehicular classes. It's almost long enough but too low and sleek to be a minivan, and lacks sliding doors. It's far to low to be an SUV, and has regular passenger car ground clearance. Although there is some resemblance to the CLS four-door coupe in the grille shape and prominent beltline, a closer look reveals that the two aren't really that similar, and they are related only by being Mercedes-Benz products. The R is not a wagon version of any sedan. It is sleek in profile, with a sloping hood, well-raked windshield, and aerodynamically-designed roofline. The wide, low Mercedes coupe grille gives it a sporty look, enhanced by the metallic faux brake scoops and aero-kit appearance of the lower front bumper. A prominent cutline on each side that angles upward toward the rear adds a dynamic wedge shape. Large triangular wraparound taillights dominate the rear.

COMFORT: Cabin design and appointment is modern Mercedes, with a fresh upscale look and good instrument and control placement. ``Spacious'' barely begins to describe the R-Class interior. ``Three rows'' all too often means compromised legroom for both the second and third. Not in the R. The front passengers get fine power-adjustable seats that provide the level of comfort and long-distance support expected from Mercedes-Benz. In the R350, the second-row passengers get seats that are nearly identical except for being manually-adjustable. Need legroom? Look no further than the second row of an R-Class - there can be almost 40 inches. This is not an airplane. At that point, the third row would be expected to be unusable. Wrong, although with the second all the way back - as for instance with a seven-foot passenger - room in the third would be limited to someone under 5 foot 10. Six six-footers can usually fit, happily. Extra-long rear passenger doors and spring-loaded second-row seats that move forward and down for third-row access make access painless. With six aboard, cargo space behind the third row is limited; with the third row flat there is more than enough for four for a long vacation - plus comfortable space for the four people, no compromise necessary. With the full-length Panorama glass sunroof, the second- and third-row passengers get an excellent view of the world through tinted glass. The front part opens for ventilation, although standard dual-zone and optional tri-zone climate control do a great job on their own.

SAFETY: The R-Class unibody structure is built largely of high-strength steel, with a safety cage around the passenger compartment and front and rear crush zones. Driver and front passenger adaptive front airbags inflate according to impact severity and passenger weight. Window-curtain airbags protect all three rows. Four-wheel antilock brakes with brake assist ensure quick stops, and traction control and the ESP electronic stability program work to optimize control on all surfaces and in all weather conditions.

RIDE AND HANDLING: With the optional Airmatic air suspension package, the R350 has the feel of a European luxury sedan, smooth and well-controlled. While keeping the standard fully-independent front double wishbone, rear multilink suspension systems, Airmatic replaces the front coil springs and rear air springs with pneumatic spring struts all around, with an adaptive variable damping system that monitors wheel motion and automatically selects from one of four damping profiles. The driver can chose between standard, comfort, and sport modes to vary the overall ride response from soft to slightly firm, and ride height can be increased at low speeds for improved clearance. It automatically lowers at higher speeds - over 70 mph - for improved stability and wind resistance. Because of its size and 4800-lb curb weight, the R350 is by no means a sports vehicle, but with the lighter unsprung weight and better suspension compliance of its car-sized wheels and tires, it's not an SUV, either. In reality, it is a very pleasant luxury vehicle, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

PERFORMANCE: Mercedes-Benz's new 3.5-liter V6 has found yet another home, and its 268 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 258 lb-ft of torque (between 2400 and 5000 rpm) can move the R350 down the road quickly and efficiently. The engine departs from its predecessors by replacing the old single overhead cam, three valve per cylinder heads with ones having dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. With the twin-cam heads, both the intake and exhaust cams can be continuously phased for optimum power and emissions performance at all engine speeds and loads. The seven-speed 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission helps to improve both fuel economy and acceleration. Manual shifting is controlled by buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, but is rarely necessary because of the transmission's adaptive shift logic. Power gets to all four wheels for optimum all-condition traction. Acceleration seems leisurely at part throttle, but put foot to floor and, as heavy as the R350 is, it can get up and move quickly, with a 0-60 time of 8.1 seconds. EPA fuel economy is 16 mpg in town and 21 on the highway, and according to the trip computer, I got just under 20 in mostly highway and backroad driving, with a little city and commute traffic thrown in for frustration.

CONCLUSIONS: The Daimler side of the DaimlerChrysler combine seems to be learning lessons from its American counterpart, and is creating new vehicles in new niches, best exemplified by the R-Class, a luxury vehicle with space.

SPECIFICATIONS 2006 Mercedes-Benz R350

Base Price $ 48,000 Price As Tested $ 58,865 Engine Type aluminum alloy dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in. Horsepower 268 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 258 @ 2400-5000 rpm Transmission 7-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 126.6 in. / 203.0 in. Curb Weight 4841 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 18.1 Fuel Capacity n/a gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires 255/55 HR18 Michelin xse Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone /independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city/highway/observed 16 / 21 / 20 0 to 60 mph 8.1 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES -10-spoke 18-inch wheel with tires $ 900 -Obsidian Black paint $ 600 -Wood and leather multifunction steering wheel $ 530 -Cargo cover $ 50 -Trim package - includes: full leather seat surfaces, burled walnut interior trim, premium interior lighting $1,750 -Entertainment Package - includes: Harmon/Kardon Logic7 system, rear audio controls, 6-disc CD changer in glovebox $1,190 -Heating Package - heated front and second-row seats $1,190 -Airmatic air suspension package $1,400 -Panoramic roof package $2,390 -Destination charge $ 775