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2011 Mercedes R-Class (Bob English/Bob English for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Mercedes R-Class (Bob English/Bob English for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R350 BlueTEC 4Matic

A Benz In search of an identity Add to ...

'I don't get it" was the response of many to the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, introduced as a luxury "sports tourer" for the 2006 model year. But apparently just enough buyers did understand what this large, luxurious and somewhat unlikely vehicle offers that it's been given a fresh new face - along with some other updated attributes - the company hopes will attract more of them for the 2011 model year.

This "new generation" R-Class, a generous stretching of the term by Mercedes' marketing types as changes are mainly cosmetic, will be available in Canada this fall in two versions, the diesel-powered R350 BlueTec 4Matic and the gasoline-fuelled R350 4Matic. The V-8 model will no longer be available. Final pricing has not yet been set, but the diesel currently lists at $56,200 and the gasser at $54,700.

Since Mercedes' erstwhile "partner" Chrysler created the modern minivan concept in the early 1980s we've seen a lot of interpretive thinking and attitudinal changes about vehicle design as it relates to lifestyle or family utility requirements.

The rise in popularity of sport-utes and their evolution into crossovers is the most obvious example, but we're now seeing some of these head off in a sportier direction with high-performance coupe-like creations such as BMW's X6 and Acura's ZDX.

The minivan, meanwhile, has changed only in the details, and hardly at all in how it's perceived in the vehicular prestige pecking order, which automatically limits its appeal for those in the auto market's higher strata.

With the R-Class, Mercedes' designers headed down a route already pioneered by another Chrysler vehicle, the now-departed Pacifica, an attempt to combine minivan utility with style, luxury, performance and prestige. That the Pacifica wasn't well received obviously didn't deter the boardroom boys in Stuttgart.

The R-Class isn't without its charms, however, and if you don't "get" it, you probably don't fit into the razor-slash-narrow niche in the marketplace that sees a need for its attributes. Likely as a second vehicle, or part of a family "fleet" that might include a luxury sedan, and perhaps a high-end coupe, roadster or sports car.

The 2011 R-Class still looks like a stylish Mercedes interpretation of a minivan you could cruise in at 200 km/h on the autobahn if you could afford the fuel, but its new and "more masculine" front end will certainly be noticed in rear view mirrors.

The hood line has been raised over new fenders incorporating high-style headlight clusters (with optional LED running lights) and there's a new grille, front bumper treatment and side mirrors. It looks fine, except for directly from the side, where the high hood line and protruding grille give it a heavy, blunt appearance. New LED taillights and rear bumper update the back end.

The interior remains unchanged, although new colours and two-tone colour combinations are available. It's typically Mercedes in there: attractive, comfortable, well-equipped, functional, quiet and fitted with eight airbags.

And the R-Class isn't short on utility, with the ability to accommodate in comfort - even in the third-row seat - seven passengers. Or, if you turf them all out and flatten the seatbacks, a 2,385-litre load of whatever you might need to take someplace else. This is similar space to that offered by mid-size crossovers, while real minivans typically offer 4,000 litres or so.

Both available engines remain essentially unchanged with the 3.0-litre diesel producing 211 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque and the 3.5-litre V-6 gas engine 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.

What is a bit different is the seven-speed automatic transmission - which directs power to the wheels via the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system - which has gained some mechanical mods, including a new torque converter. This cleverly decouples the engine and transmission at idle - taking up the drive again unnoticeably - to improve "kraftstoffverbrauch" or fuel efficiency.

The torquey BlueTec diesel - which contains its inner high compression rattles to barely perceptible levels - is not only the economy champ but wins in terms of drivability over its gas counterpart, with a strong surge of urge available under your right foot to suit any circumstance.

The gas engine delivers more-than-acceptable acceleration though - actually about half a second quicker, at 8.4, than the diesel from 0-100 km/h - but it's no surprise the fuel-frugal oil burner is the choice of 70-to-80 per cent of buyers in Canadian markets.

Slightly improved economy is claimed for both models, but no Canadian figures are available. The current BlueTec is rated at 11.5 L/100 km city and 8.2 highway, while the premium gas fuelled model's numbers are a thirsty 14.8 L/100 km city and 10.7 highway.

A day of driving both versions on urban, highway and rural routes created for the most part very positive impressions of a large, luxurious, practical vehicle with good power and handling, but which carries forward an identity issue that will likely continue to limit its appeal.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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2011 Mercedes-Benz R350 BlueTEC 4Matic

Type: Luxury/Sport crossover

Base Price: Not available

Engine: 3.0-litre, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 211 hp/ 400 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Fuel economy: European test cycle average of 8.4 L/100 km; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Audi Q7, Porsche Cayenne, Lincoln MKT, Volkswagen Touareg, Land Rover LR4, Lexus RX 350, Cadillac SRX, BMW X5, Acura MDX

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