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2006Mercedes-Benz R Class

by Martha Hindes

Mercedes-Benz R Class
Pontiac Torrent Interior

A funny thing happened after driving Chrysler's Pacifica test vehicle. We did a double take at the sight of Mercedes-Benz's brand new R class, debuting for 2006.

That sloping curve from nose to rear with narrowing rear window above a rising belt line looks familiar. Non-typical utility/wagon seating holds six in three rows. (Where have we seen that before?) Headlamps and a hint of nose V are distinctly Mercedes-Benz, but the overall shape somewhat echos a familiar family hauler. We won't use the ID, but you get the idea. With perhaps more girth than one might expect from M-B (substitute "zaftig" in German) it should qualify as a high-priced, tonier version of practical family wheels. Given the Mercedes-Benz/Chrysler relationship, that's understandable. But beyond a bit of deja vu, any similarities tend to depart.

Mercedes dubs this an aptly-named "sports tourer," given its wide-mouthed sunroof, cushy seating, and loping ride on long road cruises. A load of amenities include toney bird's eye maple touches, individual reading lights, personal adjustments for all seats, iPod integration and a dual screen entertainment system.

The R comes in two models, R350, 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6 ($48,800 before options) and R500 5.0-liter, 302-HP V-8 ($55,000 base). Unlike its sportier M class brother, the R's road manners are queued for Mercedes drivers wanting a sport utiilty with the driveability of a sports sedan.

Both R versions feature M-B's industry-top seven speed automatic, with an additional shift gate for smooth, nearly imperceptible gear changes. The apparently missing shift lever has become a steering wheel stalk instead. 4MATIC four-wheel-drive is full time. A load leveling suspension accommodates a packed house of passengers or cargo. Rain drops disappear quickly thanks to rain sensing wipers.

In the rush to invent new attention teasing descriptions that's a peculiar industry trait, M-B has adopted "automotive decathelete," to explain R class character -- "a vehicle that can excel at an unprecedented range of owner needs." We think a fun drive with function fits that terminology nicely.