Characters: You (stinking rich politician/ builder/industrialist/all of these – tick whichever is applicable), wifey, heavily religious mother, two children (preferably one each of either sex; noisy kids get extra points for originality), a multiple-cellphone wielding secretary and of course, Ramu, the quintessential chauffeur.
Situation: You’re an S-Class owner (which means you’re a lucky sod, but that’s a story for another time). A huge deal has come through and you can finally construct that 40-storey apartment complex just off the CRZ (wink wink) in Mumbai’s western suburbs. The time has come to make a quick dash to the Gods that be, or perhaps to take a beach holiday, but the S-Class obviously won’t take seven. Your other car is a Honda CR-V and that can’t take seven either. Life’s just too harsh these days, eh?
Alright, then, this is just the car to get you out of your (relative) misery. This, to tell you its full name, is the new Mercedes-Benz R-Class, an ML/GL platform based car, but one that is more spacious, faster and way more comfortable.
If you thought the CLS looked like a banana, this one looks even more so when viewed in profile, only with a bit of a nasty rear end. The R-Class is a fairly impressive bit of design, not in terms of some truly outstanding lines but instead in the way the sheer bulk of this car has been diffused. It is intimidating, but not in a cannon-launch-pad-mother-of-all-SUVs way.
Look at the R350 in profile and you will most certainly have exclamations to make. At 5.1 metres, the R is longer than a standard issue S-Class, just to give you an idea! The large-ish grille stands out prominently, but is in no way offensive. Disappointment, however, does come in at the rear end. In office banter speak, it’s like Mercedes-Benz took a 1024x768 pixel image of the ML and, as Aneesh would say, ‘widescreened’ it. Still, since we’ve lived down the Swift Dzire, this seems much more liveable. Overall, the R-Class still has all the presence you could dzire, er, desire from a 60-odd lakh rupee family car.
The first time I got into the driver’s seat, I made the inevitable mistake of grabbing thin air with my left hand. Yes, there’s no gear lever or any such thing that helps propel/decelerate/slide (handbrake!) a car. Instead, there’s an array of neat little storage bins running all the way past the front seats, ending in a pair of aircon vents for the second row. The steering wheel comes from the GL/ML and so do the dials, but that’s where the similarity ends. Brownie points for a clean dash layout and for that very welcome two-storey glovebox! However, for that very prominent edge on either end of the dash – a by-product of the layered dashboard top – on which you could cause yourself an injury (provided you’re really clumsy) in the course of some interior cleaning, it does lose a few points.
The second row of seats is properly comfortable, with no compromises, and it is in this row that the seventh seat has been incorporated. The seventh number sits bang in the centre of the second row and while at first I was quick to pass it off as a gimmick, time on hand and an enthusiastic Pablo proved that it wasn’t so bad after all. The seat is actually very well contoured and one could sit there for an hour or more without much to fuss about (except perhaps for the fact that the rear aircon vents are directed at your intimates). All the way to Goa, though? Well, we’re not so sure.
The last row is the real surprise deal in the R. Unlike in the GL, where the last row was a bit unfit for fully-grown adult use, in the R, with the second row optimally adjusted, a six-footer can sit upright with ease. It’s not what you can call plush, but hey, you’ve got vents and armrests on either side of the seats!
For a vehicle of its size, the R350 is a stupendous performer. No, it won’t shame an SLS AMG, but really, for a proper seven-seater, it’s fast. To give you an idea, I got an 8.9 second 0-100 kph time on my very first run with the car. 0-60 kph takes 3.9 seconds and on more than one occasion, we were on the happier side of 180 kph with at least another 40 kph to come. It’s got a wholesome 35.6 kgm of torque, which facilitates a relaxed driving style, but I think the 350 CDI motor would have made even more sense. If the 350 CDI from the GL, with which the R shares its platform, was carried over, the R would lose about 50 bhp but gain almost 20 kgm of torque – something that would further add to driveability, not to mention fuel economy. I’m sure someone at Mercedes-Benz is giving this a once over.
The R-Class can corner, alright. It won’t send the pit girls at the ’Ring into a frenzy, no, but the R will do a good job of ferrying your family and you across the Western ghats. The steering feels optimally setup – not as communicative as, say, the E-Class, but not unnervingly airy either – and it does not let the bulk of the car add to driving effort in any way. Body roll is minimal until you really reach the clichéd edge of adhesion. Also, despite the high-speeds it is capable of, the R won’t filter g-forces through to its occupants and make them queasy.
Despite its rather sorted dynamics package, one wouldn’t say the R-Class shrinks when pushed. No, it’s a large car and that always has to be respected. That said, the ride quality is consistently good across all three seating rows. When the going gets tough, you could employ the ride-height selector and make the 4MATIC unit earn its meal. And hey, with the ESP turned off, the R is a real thrill to slide around on loose surfaces!
At Rs 59.38 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai), the R350 makes for a completely useable family car. Yes, you may argue, so is the Toyota Innova or for that matter the Mitsubishi Pajero, but neither comes with the luxury that the R-Class provides. To put it in a sentence, if you have to ferry seven people in great comfort and a bit quickly, you can’t find a better car than the R-Class. It’s for a strong reason. You see, a Mercedes-Benz is a Mercedes-Benz is a Mercedes-Benz.