What's a parent to do when they need to transport more than two or three children (or adults for that matter), but they're not willing to make the leap to a minivan and don't love the trucky feel of a traditional SUV? Well, if you have more than fifty grand to spend, you buy a crossover. Specifically, you buy a 2011 Mercedes-Benz R350. It transports up to six people, drives just as easily as a smaller car and does it all with classy Benz swank.
I enjoyed my week test-driving the R-Class. I loved the quiet ride, standard all-wheel drive, the just-right responsive acceleration and the easy braking so much that I was willing to overlook other irksome qualities that normally would have swayed my opinion.
The R350, which was redesigned for 2011, has great visibility, with a big windshield that framed the amazing mountain vistas as I drove to Taos, N.M. The huge dual panoramic moonroofs kept the R-Class' cabin feeling bright and airy. I also loved having the flexibility to haul a variety of combinations of people and cargo, but the third row could definitely use some rethinking.
You might have guessed that this crossover isn't inexpensive. The base model starts at $50,240, and my test car, which was also a base model, cost $67,455. It takes some deep pockets to afford this car, but it's worth it.
Toyota calls its 2011 Sienna minivan the Swagger Wagon; I've decided to call the R-Class the Svaager Vaagon (said with a German accent). My test car in Diamond White paint definitely had svaager, especially with its blacked-out roofline. Add to that some blue tinted glass and 20-inch AMG five-spoke alloy wheels as part of the Sport Appearance Package ($1,350) and this goes from a classy family hauler to a pimped-out svaager vaagon. My vaagon came equipped with the svaager of a 268-horsepower V-6 engine and a seven-speed automatic transmission. It preferred to drink only the best – premium fuel, of course – and got an EPA-estimated 15/19 mpg city/highway.
The redesigned exterior of the R-Class, specifically the nose-tip job, is now much less jelly-bean shaped. It has more of an SUV-like look than the R-Classes of previous model years. The 2011 R-Class is completely family centric without sacrificing style.
The R-Class doors are big and wide, making for easy entry for anyone including parents hefting around an infant carrier. The only downside to the doors, though, is you must be careful in tight parking spots because it's easy for little ones to swing that door all the way open and ding the car next to you. The optional power liftgate, which is part of the Premium Package ($4,000), opens automatically via a button on the key fob as well as buttons in the cargo area or near the driver's seat.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great-Excellent
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times
It's inside the R-Class where some of those previously mentioned quirks start rearing their ugly heads.
The R-Class has an electronic gearshift lever on the steering wheel. Putting the car into Park using this gearshift annoyed me because I wanted some type of sensation to verify that I had just put the car into Park. Maybe I was waiting for a "gadunk" feel many cars give you when they're put into Park, only an upscale Mercedes-worthy version. Instead, I had to visually check to see if the instrument cluster read P for Park before taking my foot off the brake.
The placement of the electronic gearshift on the right-hand side of the steering wheel as well as the cruise-control stalk lever on the left side is awkward. If the driver isn't familiar with this car she might accidentally shift into Neutral. The cruise control can be accidentally set while attempting to use the turn-signal stalk, which is next to it. According to Mercedes-Benz, after a week or two a new Benz owner gets used to the odd placement of various levers around the steering wheel. However, not knowing if your car is in Park, accidentally setting the cruise control or inadvertently putting the car into Neutral all seem like safety hazards to me. Call me paranoid.
The R-Class has a scant six cupholders scattered throughout the cabin's three rows. That hardly seems like enough for a family. The in-door storage bins were shallow, not allowing for storage of an extra cup or water bottle. I usually keep an extra bottle of water stashed in the car and tried to keep mine balanced on top of the R350's in-door storage bin. Every time I opened the door the water bottle went rolling under the vehicle. After a few sessions of chase I had to come up with a new game plan.
It wasn't all bad in the interior. I loved the amount of legroom in the second row and the ability to move the row's two captain's chairs back and forth, creating more or less legroom for the third row. However, the armrests on the captain's chairs eat away at the amount of space for the passageway to the third row. It's quite snug, ever for the littlest of passengers who would be walking through there. The second-row's captain's chairs slide and collapse forward to create access to the third row, but if you have a child-safety seat or high-back booster seat in the captain's chair you're stuck using the passageway to get to the third row.
The third row's utility for little passengers is great and doable for full-sized passengers on short trips. When not in use, it folds out of the way seamlessly. It's folding it back up into place that's a pain in the butt. Standing behind the cargo area, first pull the third row's seatbacks up with the pull-tabs. Then walk around the side of the car and move the second-row captain's chair out of the way to climb to the rear row and push the seat cushions down into place. Um... did anyone tell Mercedes that for $50K people want seats that fold and unfold easily – maybe even power-folding seats, if you want to get super-thoughtful?
I was appreciative of the R350's 110-volt outlet, which I used to plug my iPad in, and my kids loved the rear entertainment system's dual screens in the second row.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample-Galore
This is where I get back to overlooking those interior quirks because I'm so impressed by the R350's safety features. All of the seat belts in the second and third rows were easy for newbies to operate on their own without assistance. The buckles sat nice and high on stable bases, so even those with little hands trying to maneuver around booster seats could buckle up easily.
There are four sets of lower Latch anchors in the R350, with two sets in the second row and two more in the third. Except for minivans, it's unusual to find Latch connectors in the third row of most cars, so I really appreciated the two sets in the third row. The lower Latch anchors in the second-row captain's chairs are visible, so there's no pushing aside seat cushions to get at them. The top tether anchors are easily accessible on the back of each of the captain's chairs. In the third row, the Latch connectors are tucked inside little plastic compartments with removable plastic covers. The top tethers are located on the backside of the third-row seats. All three types of child-safety seats – rear-facing infant seat, forward- and rear-facing convertible seat and high-back booster seat – fit well in this crossover. The reclining seats made it easy to get a good fit with the forward-facing convertible seat and the booster.
The R350 has standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control with anti-roll control, traction control, hill-start assist and all-wheel drive. It also has eight airbags, including side-impact airbags for the first and second rows and side curtains for all three rows.
Other than all of the standard safety stuff you'd expect in a luxury brand in 2011, I was appreciative of the blind spot warning system ($600), which is new for 2011. It's worth splurging for. It keeps an eye on your blind spots for you and alerts you with an illuminated triangle in the side mirror if a car pulls into your blind spot. If a car is in your blind spot and you signal that you're going to turn that way, the R-Class will beep to let you know it's not yet safe to merge. The R350 also has optional front and rear parking sensors and a backup camera.