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Crossover vehicles come in all shapes and sizes. But there’s one shape Mercedes-Benz probably doesn’t want associated with its new R-Class. “When did Benz start selling a hearse?” we overheard at a lunch stop on California’s Route 1.

 

Take it from us: any dead guy would be happy to be escorted to the hereafter the R350 or the R500, the dual versions of the crossover coming to showrooms shortly from the Benz plant in Vance, Alabama. Built alongside the ML-Class sport-ute, the R-Class shares some of its country genes but takes it people-carrying mission even more seriously than the luxuriant ML350 I drove last week.

 

Though it shares its four-wheel-drive system, engines, and automatic transmission, the R-Class is a strongly different flavor than the ML because it’s designed to carry six people and cargo, with less an off-road, SUV-butch bent than the ML. It’s sleeker, more sophisticated, and far swankier, too — each passenger getting their own adjustable bucket seat, air vents, and in the first two rows, their own entertainment screens. (If they’re really lucky, they’ll also get a copy of the snappy PR video we watched — but maybe their version won’t have the director’s-cut nude scene.)

 

Benz is stepping out into uncharted territory here, pitching the crossover package into a much more upscale market than other automakers have yet breached. BMW and Jaguar are coming, but Benz is nearly alone now in stepping past the $50,000 priceline. And in reaching, no hyperbole seems too over the top. Think of it, they ask, as an automotive decathlete.

 

Deca means ten, right?

 

(Drive) train, train

 

Two engines from the Mercedes-Benz family define the capacious R350 and the equally roomy but far more silken R500. The R350’s 3.5-liter V-6 spins out 268 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque, and a certain growling enthusiasm for the task at hand. But given that it’s hauling around 4766 pounds, it won’t be taking the pole at Trois-Rivieres. Still its 0-60 mph acceleration time of 7.8 seconds is faster than some RSXs and Eclipses we’ve known and loved.

 

The R500, if you can swing the $55,500 base price, is the first-class ticket. The voluptuous V-8 rhythm it hammers out syncopates as well as any Cuban percussionist we know (okay, so we know one, but he’s good). Its 302 hp drop the 60-mph dash in 6.5 seconds and keep going to a tire-limited 130 mph, same as the R350.

 

We haven’t thought much of the seven-speed automatic in vehicles like the sporting SLK, but in the R500 the gearbox is in its element. Whether you’re letting the tranny choose what’s best or clicking the Touch Shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel, it always seems to have a good answer to the call for more speed.

 

Big gun

 

Either engine does a decent job of disguising the R-Class’ bulk. The same can be said for its styling, which manages to skirt around the fact that the R-Class is longer than an S-Class or even a Cadillac Escalade. It’s 14 inches stretchier than the ML-Class, too.

 

What it gets in length it gives up in hardcore capability. The R-Class is distinctly not an off-road vehicle. There’s but 5.8 inches of ground clearance, and the whole idea of putting skid plates underneath and riding through the slop seems just plain distasteful when you’re coddled deep in the second-row buckets. Still, the R350/R500 have the same four-wheel-drive system as the ML, with three open differentials and traction control granting it all-weather stick.

 

The rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel-disc braking are well dialed in and balanced, and it’s possible to hustle the R-Class along quite quickly with either engine. But of course, the R feels more plushly controlled when the optional Airmatic suspension is fitted; otherwise it’s a four-link rear suspension that rubs the peaks and valleys off the ride quality pretty nicely in its own right. Driving the R-Class in either form is rewarding even on the kinkiest venues — whether it’s Route 1 or navigating the San Francisco Tenderloin.

 

Oh, and don’t forget the bling — the R350 gets 17-inch seven-spoke rims with 235/65R-17s. The R500 has 18-inch wheels with 255/55R-18s. And an AMG sport package gets 19-inch wheels and tires, with a real AMG version of the R coming for 2007.

 

 

First class, please

 

Everyone has a window seat in the R-Class, and the seats will make any domestic airline shrink in abject horror because they’re so roomy and amenity-laden. There’s no meal service, so far as we can tell, but Benz says the R has the front-seat room of an S-Class, the second-row room of an E-Class, and the third-row room of the C-Class. Flip down the second and third rows, and there’s 85 cubic feet of space to occupy. (By our estimates, the average casket would be about 96 cubic feet, so there goes that side work.)

 

Seating in the second row is ideal. The third row, though, still doesn’t cut it for six-footers — my spine would have been compressed more if I’d spent more than ten minutes wedged back there. Petite rides need only apply.

 

Behind the steering wheel, you’ll rejoice in a bevy of buttons and switchgear, most of them leading to some kind of entertainment. Steering-wheel controls duplicate some of the R’s COMAND functions for audio/climate controls. They also allow you to control your iPod playlists and all, hidden carefully away in the glovebox, through a proprietary cable.

 

The sweep of the R’s dash is lavished in muted plastics, while the dash wears its wood trim by the square foot. Lighter-toned wood sets the R350 apart from the darker-trimmed R500. The front center console will hold a purse if you carry one, our girly passenger noted; a second-row console can do the same if the purse is club-sized, not beach-sized. E-mail us if you know how these two differ, please.

 

Safety stuff gets crammed in every conceivable place. Dual front, side front and three-row curtain airbags are set to go off one day, and the number of functions controlled at the R’s wheels — anti-lock, stability and traction control, and brake assist — would stress you out if it were your job.

 

Enough gear for a men’s magazine

 

If you need more to keep you entertained than the R-Class offers, you might also want to add an Ativan prescription to your list. The R350’s standard features include the single-CD sound system with MP3/iPod capability; power everything; leather everything; and airbag everything, along with four-wheel drive. The R500 adds a CD changer, heated front seats, memory seating, a power telescope/tilt wheel, TeleAid, and more chrome-like trim.

 

And still there’s more. A twin-monitor DVD entertainment system is offered, along with Sirius satellite radio and a navigation system. A power liftgate can be ordered, as can a huge panoramic sunroof that’s 67 inches long. Tick all the boxes and the R500 approaches a lofty, loopy $70,000.

 

But hey, it could be your final ride, right? Might as well make it a good one.

 

2006 Mercedes-Benz R35/R500
Base price:
$48,000-$55,500 (plus $775 destination)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 268 hp/258 lb-ft; 5.0-liter V-8, 302 hp/339 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with Touch Shift control, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 203.0 x 77.5 x 65.2 inches
Wheelbase: 126.6 inches
Curb weight: 4766-4845 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control; four-wheel drive
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player; power locks/mirrors/windows; power front seats; third-row seats; air conditioning; leather seating; 17-inch wheels (R350), 18-inch wheels (R500); load-leveling suspension

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

Reviewed by Marty Padgett
Editorial Director, The Car Connection
BASE INVOICE
$44,640
BASE MSRP
$48,000
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