Giving the Station Wagon a Spin
Mercedes would prefer that you call its new R-Class a "grand sports tourer." Might as well, since it drives nothing like the family truckster of yore.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – Behold the Wordsmiths in the marketing department at Mercedes-Benz, for they are wondrous indeed. In their enthusiasm to insert psychological distance between downmarket phrases such as "station wagon" and "soccer moms"--lest such terms become attached to the company's nifty new R-Class vehicles--these scribes have coined some truly inspired verbiage. Case in point: Call it not a wagon, for it is really a "grand sports tourer." Who drives such a vehicle? Not yuppie suburbanites, heaven forbid. How about "late-forming affluent families"? Of course, the semantic somersaulting is wholly unnecessary. No matter how you describe it, the 2006 Mercedes R350 is a very fine ride. And if your memories of a family station wagon include a pair of harried parents and a sticky passel of are-we-there-yet kids on a summertime road trip, rest easy. This is not that wagon.

An icy-black 2006 R-Class appeared at my door at dawn on a day when I happened to be making the commute from midtown Manhattan to eastern Pennsylvania. (To put it in terms of roadside attractions, I'd be traveling from the Museum of Sex to the Crayola Factory.) As it also happened, four other riders would be accompanying me on the trip--a perfect wagonload to test the R350. Mercedes created the vehicle to fill a void between its slate of sedan-based wagons and the M-Class line of SUVs. In theory, the R-Class would 1) be as capacious as a wagon, 2) be as nimble as a sedan, and 3) project a greener environmental image than the increasingly reviled SUV. So first things first: It's big inside. Actually, it's big outside too (longer than a Cadillac Escalade), but the styling masks its bulk. An elegant crease runs from nose to tail, and the bowed roofline echoes the modern design with which Mercedes gifted its pricier CLS sedans. One interesting effect of the flowing lines is the creation of optical illusions: The passenger doors, which on first glance seem of normal size, are in fact huge. Crack them open and you spy a pair of gorgeous leather captain's chairs, each with its own armrests, cupholder, climate control, seat adjustments, and--if you order the option--DVD player and iPod plug-in. (This being a Mercedes, each seat has its own airbag too.) Just behind this comfy den is a third row of leather seats, almost as luxe. In other words, passengers are as cosseted as the driver of the R350.

Upon spotting these digs, my colleagues scrambled into the back, buckled up, and began to happily play with every button, switch, lever, and control within reach. (A quick "Sit still!" settled them down.) The R350 has a seven-speed transmission that is engaged electronically, via a lever on the steering stalk--not the best arrangement, but hey. Tug the lever south and you're in reverse, tap it inward and you're in park, nudge it north and you're in drive. A rocker switch on the dash allows you to fine-tune the Airmatic suspension (you can choose between "comfort," "normal," and "sport" modes). I clicked into "sport" to handle the Manhattan streets and steered the R350 in the direction of the Holland Tunnel.

Mercedes plans on selling more than 30,000 Rs by the end of next year and offers two versions at different horsepower and price points. The R350, which goes for about $58K nicely equipped, boasts a 268-horsepower V-6 capable of taking a luxury grand sports tourer filled with five late-forming adults from zero to 60 in just under eight seconds. (For those less concerned about the skyrocketing price of premium unleaded, an upgrade to the R500 gets you a 302-horsepower V-8 for about $65K.) Though the car is heavy, it slalomed along the turnpike with astounding ease and hardly a suggestion that I was doing well in excess of the speed limit. Cabin noise is virtually nil, and the R350 has an amazing drag coefficient for, ahem, a station wagon--just 0.31, which is slipperier than some sedans. At 75 mph the suspension drops half an inch, the engine settles into a contralto, and the car begins to seemingly glide, in a good way.

Since persons shopping for this type of car tend to haul stuff--kids, dogs, groceries, golf bags, and so on--Mercedes tricked out the R350 with a variety of features pitched directly at them. The rear gate whirs up automatically, one touch of a lever folds the third-row seats flat, the car can be elevated 3 inches for clearance or to aid in loading, and when properly configured the cargo area swallows 85 cubic feet of junk. And so that your cargo is properly lit, Mercedes fitted a sunroof almost 6 feet long onto the R350.

At the end of the day, however, buyers will judge the R350 not by how much it hauls but by how well it drives. So I offer a telling anecdote. The route I took from Manhattan to rural Pennsylvania is 95 miles, from the taxied scrum of New York traffic, through the asphalt washboard of New Jersey, and into the steamy monotony of Keystone State farmland. It ain't an interesting drive. Furthermore, it's fraught with big rigs, road rage, state troopers, and assorted highway nonsense. The commute almost guarantees boredom and discomfort, for both driver and passengers. (And Lord help the driver if said guests are kids.) Yet, within a few moments of crossing under the Hudson, I had the R350 to 90 mph, the iPod on jazz, the AC to a perfect 70 degrees, the ride clicked to "comfort," my seat perfectly lumbared and reclined, and my crew chatting away contentedly. After an hour and 10 minutes, we reached our destination (just beyond the Museum of Pez Dispensers, for those following on the atlas at home). I pulled up to the building and pushed the button for park, and silence descended on the cabin. And then came a voice from the rear: "Are we here already? That was easy." Yes, it was.

MERCEDES R350

Price (as tested): $57,635 Body type: Station wagon Weight: 4,766 lbs. Length/width: 203 in./77.5 in. Wheelbase: 126.6 in. Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 Horsepower: 268 (@6,000 rpm) Acceleration, 0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds Top speed: 130 mph Fuel economy (city/highway): 16/21 mpg