Monday 6 December 2010

Mass hysteria: Mercedes R350 CDi

A long while ago, I made a Roadwork entry on the re-styled Mercedes R-Class. I bemoaned the fact that the crazy, bug eyed visage of old had been dismissed, and a more conventionally attractive yet disappointingly bland face employed. I also mentioned that it's a car that also used to be unexpectedly fabulous car to drive.

And today I'm going to do exactly the same thing again.

Last weekend, after a hundred-mile dash to Gatwick Airport to help my hideously wealthy boss on his way to the Maldives, the R was as good as mine. My CDs in the stereo, seat electrically adjusted and climatically controlled to meet my exacting requirements. 

With His Nibs and entourage on board, the first part of the journey would be a sober, restrained, ministerial affair, and the R did a superb job of delivering my human cargo to its destination in an unruffled, efficient manner. I had four passengers on board and a hefty stack of luggage; in five-seat mode the load area made light work of swallowing a fortnight's worth of Gucci Bermuda shorts, Yves Saint Laurent thong bikinis, dress tiaras and sundry other holiday paraphernalia of the nouveau riche.

Despite this mountain of freight, the passengers still had their seats in their rearmost positions for maximised middle-row legroom. The young lady of the group was travelling in the least comfort, her seat being in the middle and somewhat compromised, compared with the throne-like outer perches. Still, there is lateral room enough for three people to travel abreast without developing homicidal tendencies.

After a journey free of drama, the Mercedes reached Gatwick Airport in what felt like double-quick time, and I hadn't even been misbehaving at the wheel. I disgorged the contents of the R-Class, human and otherwise and watched, sighing as they collectively buggered off to the tropics. I took comfort, though, in my subservience having been valuable in a research capacity; I had established that the R-Class is very good indeed at carrying people and their stuff. Of course, this was just a prelude to the main event. Balls to the passengers, what about the driver?

I would refer you to the complete non-review of the R350 by Matt Hardigree of Jalopnik. In fact, go and read it now. Chortle, belly-laugh, admire the wit and metaphor. Then come back and read about how it drives, 'cos Matt didn't really seem interested. In the comments he later admits that “It isn't too bad to drive”, and he's part right. The truth is, the R-Class is awesome.

It cheats, really. There's no direct comparison to make. Sitting on the same mechanical underpinnings as the ML and GL SUVs, the R shares a feeling of go-anywhere, do-anything. However, an R might have the same engine and transmission, but has nothing of the higher ground clearance, hill-descent control or differential lock that its taller stablemates employ on hostile terrain. Retaining permanent four-wheel drive, though, and this being teamed with road-biased tyres, what it does have is grip. Lots and lots of grip. On tarmac or concrete, in rain or snow - it hangs onto whatever you throw at it.

And grunt, too. This particular example is the R350 CDi, powered by a diesel engine that feels far more muscular than its three-litre capacity would suggest. It weighs in at 265bhp, which is quite a big number in itself, but it also has 620NM of torque, and it's this latter figure that has me doing very immature things on the motorway. Put simply, the novelty of pulling alongside something in such a leviathan, and then flooring it and disappearing towards the horizon with seemingly exponential acceleration just never wears off. It's magical, and I'm seriously surprised that Jalopnik Matt never noticed it.

This would be one hell of a machine in which to conquer continents. Endless shove and a surreal Orient-Express ride quality at motorway speeds. Best of all is the presence it has in the rear-view mirrors of lesser vehicles. People just yield, unquestioningly, although the shock-and-awe of the Xenon laser-death-beam headlamps and look-at-me LED running lights is probably partly responsible. 

Cruising at quasi-legal speeds as if it were second nature for the R-Class, I imagined the aesthetic that the car presented as it passed slower traffic. In a dark colour, with privacy glass, a fast-moving R-Class is undoubtedly a sinister looking machine. One might imagine some Government rapid-response special ops team to be lurking on board, speeding to intercept a secret shipment of classified materials at a darkened aerodrome somewhere, far from the likely reality of it containing the Wilkins family returning from a skiing trip to Val Disere.

I even enjoy the noise it makes. Diesel engines can never match the sonorous howl of a flat-plane petrol V8, or the crisp scream of a straight-six. At worst they are agricultural, a constant death-rattle redolent of imminent big-end failure; the best thing you can say of most of the better diesels is that they are nicely muted, usually being shrouded with heavy duty sound deadening materials. The V6 unit in the R350 CDi, though, is the best-sounding diesel I have ever sat behind.

For the most part it just provides a reassuring background hum, at high motorway speeds  it's not dissimilar to the sound in the cabin of a long-haul airliner, only quieter. Telegraph a demanding message to the engine-room, though, and the R-Class responds with a deep bellow that is the sound of pure industrial power.

Nought to sixty takes 7.7 second in this two ton monster, but the figures only tell a fraction of the story. Fact is, it goes like a stabbed rat. The deep well of torque, the, responsiveness of the gearbox and that 4x4 traction colaborate to make the R350 a devastatingly accomplished overtaker, and one whose firepower can be further massaged by those clever Brabus folk if you so desire.

Numbers aside, I always feel a little disappointed when I dismount from the R and saddle up in something like an S-Class. The S, even with the same engine as the R, feels so normal. It's a big Mercedes saloon, everybody expects it to be fast. The R has that delicious element of surprise to it.

Personally, I'd rather have an R than an S, as you're probably gathering by now. It's cheaper, even more so if you opt for the less powerful, rear-wheel-drive, shorter wheelbase R300 CDi model, but the full-fat 350 CDi is the one to have. I just wish it felt a bit more like an S-Class inside. 

Architecturally it's fine; everything is in the right place. The materials are perfectly respectable too, it's well built and feels like it'll last in the same way as Mercedes products used to. It all feels very professional, it just really needs to look a little more special.

Frustratingly, they nearly managed it; the armrests and switch panels on the doors are covered with beautifully stitched Artico (AKA "pretend") Leather to match the seats, but this finish doesn't stretch quite as far as onto the adjoining dashboard. It's such a shame; the plastics are nice, but a little bit everyday to be at home in such a unique car. 

Mercedes needs to have a better look at how it markets the R-Class; at the moment they haven't really assigned any particular image to it. Get some as VIP cars for film premiers instead of the usual raft of S-Classes. Add a little luxe to some of the more visible interior surfaces and it  suddenly becomes an entirely new kind of limousine. I mean, it's now far less polarising to look at now than it was; by the end of my weekend I had found several angles from which the R350 honestly looks very tasty indeed. Appealing enough, even, for me to cease defending the previous, facially disfigured R-Class. Yes, it used to stand out from the crowd, but I'll admit that this was for all the wrong reasons.

I look forward to using the R to collect my freshly tanned VIPs from Gatwick in a fortnight... I'll do my utmost to avoid giving away how much fun I've been having in the meantime.


  1. Here in Canada, I see a few more Rs than S’. Not that there are a lot of either, mind you. I like the R as a people mover, the R63 being particularly appealing, but it isn’t marketed well here either. In my mind, it occupies a similar market niche to the Lincoln MKT, another unpopular vehicle that presents an interesting alternative to minivan life.

  2. Mercedes UK seem to really suck at marketing. Their most recent campaign was all about projecting their name into the British psyche, it made absolutely no mention of the products they offer, nor wat makes them unique.

    Annoyingly, because the Benz name is still so powerful the sales keep rolling in, crappy marketing or not.