2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
February 29, 2012

The ambiguously shaped Mercedes R-Class isn't as easy a choice as the big GL-Class SUV, but especially in diesel trim, it's a capable long-distance touring machine.

Not quite an SUV, not nearly a minivan, the Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a crossover that hasn't crossed over in the way that its cousins, the M-Class and GL-Class, have. Maybe it's overcrowding in the over-$50,000 all-wheel-drive market in Mercedes stores, but for whatever reason, this six- or seven-seat long-distance tourer's been overlooked.

The R-Class' amorphous styling could be at fault, too. It's somewhere between all those popular body styles, and as a result the R-Class doesn't look like anything except the departed Chrysler Pacifica. It's softer and less overtly a utility vehicle, and it has a bulbous rear end with a big wagon tailgate. It's androgynous, and mostly forgettable. Inside it's much better, with a familiar collection of big, clear gauges and wood trim that's clearly related to, but not identical to, the setups in the GL and ML utes. The dash is probably the most SUV-like feature of the R-Class, aside from its all-wheel-drive hardware.

There's a choice of two six-cylinder engines. A new direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6 boosts horsepower from 268 hp to 302 hp this year, bringing with it a new seven-speed automatic--a drivetrain we've sampled at length in the M-Class. The R-Class we'd buy is the other six, a 210-hp, 3.2-liter turbodiesel V-6 that's clean and economical, with only a bit of muted diesel clatter to differentiate it from the smooth-revving gas engine. Both powertrains offer strong, refined and relaxed performance with a smooth ride and a hefty, solid driving feel, but the diesel's mid-20s highway fuel economy is a strong selling point for those who don't mind seeking out a new filling station, if they must.

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The R-Class is tailored for six adult passengers, but a seventh spot can be opted into. Riding lower than the big GL-Class, the R-Class is easier to climb into, and the front seats are quite supportive and well-shaped. The second-row seats are buckets unless a bench is ordered, but like in the Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT, those middle bucket seats are worth having. They're very comfortable, with lots of leg and head room, even when slid to their most forward position and tilted into their most upright position. The third row is a bit smaller and flatter, but have great head room and much easier access than most SUVs, since the R-Class' rear doors are very wide. The packaging has its drawbacks--the long doors can make tight parking spots seem tighter, and the back two rows of seats are more complex to fold forward when more cargo room is needed.

'Good' IIHS safety scores have been awarded to the R-Class in several categories, and with standard all-wheel drive, as well as curtain airbags and stability control it has a solid, reassuring set of security items. A rearview camera and Bluetooth are also standard, and blind-spot monitors and adaptive cruise control are offered. Other standard features include satellite radio and dual-zone climate control; major options include a Harmon/Kardon audio system; an air suspension; heated, massaging front seats; and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Styling

The R-Class is dressed to impress inside, but on the outside it might be too close to the dreaded mom-mobile.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is amorphous--somewhere between a wagon, a minivan, and a crossover or SUV. And while that could be a positive in other segments of the market, the R-Class lands in a price class shoppers by image-conscious families--who might not know what to think of it.  

Last year, Mercedes-Benz gave the 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 tail lamps are lifted slightly.

Inside it's much better, with a familiar collection of big, clear gauges and wood trim that's clearly related to, but not identical to, the setups in the GL and ML utes. The dash is probably the most SUV-like feature of the R-Class, aside from its all-wheel-drive hardware. The optional Panorama sunroof remains a nice touch that lends a light, airy feel, and the cabin in general impresses as smartly dressed.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Performance

The R-Class performs well in either guise, but we love the strong, relaxed demeanor of the Bluetec diesel.

At 5,000-pounds-plus, the R-Class simply isn't all that exciting to drive, but it handles in a secure manner, with less pitching than taller or shorter SUVs, and performs well.

The steering is probably the low point of the experience; it has no real feel of the road and an unnecessarily hefty sensation at parking speeds, though especially in gasoline versions it’s weighted nicely for highway ramps and back-road corners.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class comes in two different models, each with its own powertrain. The R350 comes with a new 302-horsepower, direct-injected V-6 gasoline engine, while a 210-hp, 3.2-liter turbo-diesel V-6 is carried over in the R350 Bluetec.

Even though the new R350 Bluetec feels considerably stronger than before--and somewhat better on gas--we think that the Bluetec model is the way to go unless you detest diesels. The engine in the Bluetec model is clean and economical, with only a little diesel clatter when starting out. Plus, it has a strong, relaxed feel, and because of its 400 pound-feet of torque, it's not at all flustered by hills or full loads.

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In either case, the seven-speed automatic transmission churns through the gears smoothly, and 4Matic all-wheel drive provides all-weather reassurance. As we hinted above, the transmission needs to do a little more work with the gasoline engine, but it's up to the task.
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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Comfort & Quality

For passing the miles in luxury, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a top pick.

If you need to accommodate several adult passengers in comfort--or even if you seek a more luxurious alternative to a minivan--the 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is a great pick.

In layout, accommodations, and interior details, the R-Class has an excellent combination of attributes for passing the miles in luxury. 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. In the second row, you can slide the seats fore and aft several inches so as to divvy out legroom--especially as it can be scarce in the third row if you happen to have the second all the way back. Nevertheless, the second-row seats flip up The rearmost 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).

Whether you're in front or in the second row, you get great seats; but the R-Class isn't quite as good as a minivan--or many crossovers--for cargo. While they fold to a mostly-flat position, they don't actually fold into the floor. Also, folding the seats is a daunting, multistep operation (involving nudging the front seat forward, and removing the rear headrests) that in no way, as in many competitors, can be done with one arm still holding onto a kid or a stroller.

Unfortunately, those huge rear doors will still be a handicap for those who live in tighter city spaces. With rather stiff action, they require a lot of effort for kids, and you might not be able to open them up all the way except in your driveway.

The R-Class’s ride is creamy yet firm, and soaks up jittery back-road surfaces with aplomb. Even over the potholes and crumbled sections that are all too common in the New York City metro area, where we first drove the R-Class, it maintained a feeling of composure and solidity.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Safety

Good safety equipment and the brand's solid reputation for safety provide assurance in the R-Class.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class has a solid set of safety features, and in addition to some good safety ratings it has M-B's decades-earned reputation for safety.

Eight airbags are included in all 2012 Mercedes-Benz R-Class models, along with the Pre-Safe safety system and front active headrests. There's also a blind-spot system that alerts with a triangle in the rearview mirror, as well as a chime, when you use the turn signal and another vehicle is alongside.

In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the R-Class has achieved top 'good' results for frontal, side, and rear impact--although it still hasn't been tested in the agency's new roof strength area. The federal government also hasn't yet put the R-Class through its battery of tests, which were revised last year.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Features

Everything you might expect to find is here in the 2012 R-Class, though COMAND could use an upgrade.

Families looking for upscale, comfortable transportation won't have anything to be disappointed about in the 2012 R-Class. It's as well equipped as any other luxury vehicle; and when you consider its plethora of rear-seat extras, it offers enough to soothe your passengers, too.

Bluetooth and a rearview camera are included on all models, and the R-Class can be optioned up to include an SD card slot, 4GB of music storage, and an iPod interface, along with Harman Kardon surround sound. A long list of options and packages include an air suspension, adaptive damping, adaptive cruise control, heated active front seats, and a rear-seat entertainment system.

The infotainment system in the R-Class--and the COMAND interface itself--remains good-looking but not always intuitive, and the system in the R-Class is beginning to look somewhat dated next to systems like MyFord Touch, or even the latest version of MMI or iDrive. We like how drivers can navigate through the menus from either a control on the dash or from the steering wheel, although the way you do some frequently accessed functions (like zooming in or out in a nav-system map) are less straightforward than they should be.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz R Class

Fuel Economy

Especially in diesel R350 Bluetec form, the R-Class sips fuel and is great for long roadtrips.

While the R350's EPA ratings of 16 mpg city, 21 highway aren't all that impressive, and about on par with those of chunkier SUVs, we'd venture to say that the R350 Bluetec model's 18/23 ratings give it some green credibility--especially when you consider its three rows of seating, with enough comfort for six adults.

And from our real-world experience--we've seen impressive fuel economy on the highway in the R350 Bluetec and in Mercedes-Benz's other diesel SUVs--you might even do better than those EPA numbers.

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Styling 7
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