While the official line from Mercedes-Benz is that the '06 R-Class is a "segment buster," not an SUV, wagon, or a minivan, that may be more spin that anything because stylistically, it looks like a wagon, albeit more aggressive than the E-Class or the BMW 5-Series wagons. Perhaps this "segment-busting" talk relates to the potential buyers: Mercedes hopes to attract consumers who disdain the stigma of minivans, while at the same time do not want to trek around in a passé SUV. Projecting annual output at 60,000 units at Mercedes' Vance, AL, assembly plant, the automaker expects the U.S. market to account for 50% of total R-Class volumes. The plant will build both short- and long-wheelbase versions of the R, with the shorts headed outside the U.S., while longs will stay state-side. Incidentally, the long-wheelbase R measures in at 203-in., which is 5-in. longer than a Cadillac Escalade and 10-in. longer than a Cadillac SRX. The short-wheelbase version is 8-in. shorter than its long sibling.
Mercedes marketing executives admit the R-Class may crimp sales of the E350 wagon by more than 30%, but say the M-Class SUV will not be hurt by the newest member of the family. Speaking of M-Class, the R-Class rides on a derivative of the M-Class unit body platform, making it excel when it comes to ride-and-handling characteristics thanks to its high torsional rigidity. The roof pillars are formed of three layers of steel, which are connected to the reinforced side members, while 62% of the vehicle's body panels are formed from high-strength steel.
Exterior styling is a mix between a sports sedan and a luxury wagon, with the seating position of an SUV. The power dome hood and sloping profile give the R-Class an athletic appearance. Inside, the R-Class is all about accommodation, as 64% of the vehicle's overall length has been designated for occupant comfort; there is 34-in. between the 1st and 2nd row seats, allowing each second row seat to move fore and aft by 6-in. An additional 30-in. of space is provided between the 2nd and 3rd rows. The driver-oriented cockpit follows the form created in the '06 M-Class, with chronograph-style gauges and tastefully executed center console. An optional panoramic sunroof, which measures in at nearly 5-ft., provides nearly an open-air driving experience.
Mercedes engineers admit the R-Class was not designed to be an SUV replacement, since its 5.8-in. ground clearance would barely allow it to traverse even a modest summit. Still, the optional Airmatic adjustable suspension provides the flexibility to lower the vehicle during highway driving or raise it up while driving over rutted roads or deep snow. Above 77 mph, the suspension automatically lowers by more than ½-in. for better handling. Toggle the rocker switch on the dash to the highest point and the vehicle rises by more than 3-in. The R-Class also features the full-time all-wheel-drive system found in the M-Class, with three "open" differentials in the front, rear and center of the powertrain. Power for the R is provided via either the standard 3.5-liter V-6, which debuted in the '05 SLK, or the optional 5.0-liter V-8. The 3.5 produces 268 hp and 258 lb.-ft. of torque at between 2,400-5,000 rpm. Opting for the V-8 boosts horsepower to 302 and 339 lb.-ft. of torque available between 2,700-4,750 rpm. Both engines are mated to the standard 7-speed automatic transmission. Unlike traditional transmissions, the 7-speed will skip up to three gear ratios if necessary during downshifts, providing quick, smooth acceleration.