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First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

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Sometimes the best vehicles for a particular purpose elude easy classification. Take the Mercedes-Benz R-Class; ever since the first time we encountered this vehicle, we've called it one of the best long-distance luxury cruisers on the market, and one of our top choices for keeping fatigue at bay when you have adult-size passengers and hundreds of miles to go before you sleep.

But despite the road-trip kudos, the R-Class's ambiguity has gotten in the way of success. With a silhouette that lands somewhere between a tall wagon, an SUV, and yes, a minivan, plus a very people-oriented interior with space to sprawl, the R should be a sales success—especially in the suburbs.

But the R-Class isn’t a big seller; however nice the package, we suspect it also has left shoppers scratching their heads a bit. Is it Mercedes' minivan, or an exceptionally passenger-friendly utility vehicle?

Brawnier look curbs an existential crisis

To bring this luxury people-mover a little more up-to-date and take it just a little bit more, stylistically, in the direction of a utility vehicle, Mercedes-Benz has given the 2011 R-Class a slightly more upright front end, with a higher, arrow-edged hoodline and a higher, more prominent grille that's now a lot closer in appearance to those used in the M-Class and GL-Class utes. It's flanked with flowing headlamps that, to this reviewer's eyes, look like they have eyelids and are a little more organic, while the rear fascia has been changed and taillamps are lifted slightly. Inside, the dash top gets a new look, bright trim accents brighten it up a bit, and some of the other materials and color combinations are new. The optional Panorama sunroof remains a nice touch that lends a light, airy feel, too. Overall, it looks a little more buff on the outside, a little more smartly dressed inside.

And for those who need to accommodate adults in comfort, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class interior is downright smart. Those very long back doors allow easy access to the third row of this six- or seven-seater, and the standard arrangement in three rows of two bucket seats (with a middle seat available for the second row) makes sure everyone’s taken care of. The second row slides fore and aft a few inches so that you can properly divvy out legroom between passengers, and the seatback in both rows adjusts for rake. The third row is a little smaller, a little flatter, but it’s no punishment as there’s still enough headroom (even, barely, for this 6’-6” beanpole). Getting in is a good deal easier than in some minivans as the second-row seats flip up and forward and the rear door openings are huge.

Unfortunately, those huge rear doors will still be a handicap for those who live in tighter city spaces. They’re probably about 50 percent longer than the doors of most large sedans, and you won’t be able to open them up all the way in most parallel-parking spots. With a rather stiff action, they also require a little too much muscle for smaller kids.


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