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  • 2010 Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe

    Four-passenger coupe replaces the CLK

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe

    2010 Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe

    This year, Mercedes-Benz combines its mid-sized coupe and sedan within the E-Class series. The 2010 E-Class coupe replaces the CLK, adding a standard panoramic sunroof and enhanced safety features over the former model.

    The new coupe’s most obvious attribute is its style: the car is drop-dead gorgeous. While visceral appeal shouldn’t be the sole determinant for a new car purchase, style matters. Given the choice between surrounding myself with beauty or blight, I’ll choose beauty any day of the week.

    Up front, two large rectangular headlamps frame the grille and Mercedes-Benz emblem. By eliminating the B-pillar, designers create a continuous sweep of glass from the front of the car to the back. Not only do the frameless doors enhance the coupe’s appearance, they also maximize over-the-shoulder visibility.

    The standard panoramic sunroof consists of two glass panels, giving both rows of occupants an abundance of ambient light. Mouse controls on the center console and steering wheel allow the driver to program the audio and navigation systems with a minimum of confusion. By eliminating excess buttons, the designers created a clean, modern-looking instrument panel. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Mercedes-Benz Unveils S 400 Hybrid

    Automaker stages world premier of its flagship sedan at Auto China

    Dr. Dieter Zetsche presents the new S-Class and E-Class in Shanghai

    Dr. Dieter Zetsche presents the new S-Class and E-Class in Shanghai

    Dateline: Shanghai. This week, Mercedes-Benz took the wraps off the 2009 S-Class at Auto China: the international auto show in Shanghai. China is now the biggest market for the automaker’s flagship sedan: sales growth exceeded thirty percent over the past year.

    S-Class offerings include the new S 400 Hybrid and redesigned S 65 AMG. The new hybrid is capable of going 100 kilometers or about 62 miles on 7.9 liters of gasoline: less than two gallons. The powertrain has extremely low carbon dioxide emissions: carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming.

    In addition, the S-Class will be available with several gasoline and clean diesel engines, paired up with a seven-speed automatic transmission. Enhanced safety technology includes speed limit assist, attention assist, drowsiness detection and adaptive high beam assist.

    Night view assist technology that debuted on the outgoing model now features pedestrian detection. When the system recognizes pedestrians in front of the car, it highlights them in the display to make them more noticeable.

    BlueZERO concepts

    Mercedes-Benz introduced three new electric car concepts in Shanghai. They include a battery-driven electric car with a range of up to 125 miles, a fuel cell with a range of over 250 miles, and an extended-range electric car that can travel 62 miles on electric power, with an overall range of 372 miles.

    Shanghai was also the site for the Asian E-Class debut. Enhanced safety features on the new E-Class include drowsiness detection, adaptive high beam assist and automatic emergency braking.

  • Mercedes-Benz Debuts Green SUVs in New York

    Automaker unveils E63 AMG sedan, ML450 Hybrid and GL350 BlueTEC at this week’s auto show

    Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

    Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG

    Mercedes-Benz introduces a new high-performance sedan, hybrid and clean-diesel sport-utility vehicles at the New York International Auto Show, which opens to the public April 10. The show also marks the North American debut of the 2010 E-Class: the automaker’s volume-leading sedan.

    The E63 AMG may be the fastest grocery-getter on the planet, with a 6.2-liter engine rated at 518 horsepower. A seven-speed automatic transmission with manual gear selection has a friction multi-clutch set-up that engages gears faster than traditional torque converters.

    An attention-assist feature on the new E-Class is similar to technologies used by Volvo and Lexus: it monitors the driver for drowsiness, sending visual and audible signals when necessary. Other new standard safety features include blind spot assist and lane keeping assist.

    Engineers have advanced night view assist technology that debuted in the current S-Class. The system on the 2010 E-Class incorporates adaptive high beams that automatically modulate when they sense oncoming traffic.

    Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

    Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

    The ML450 Hybrid is a gasoline-electric version of Mercedes-Benz’s popular sport-utility vehicle. Power comes from a 3.5-liter V6 engine that works in concert with an electric motor to provide V8 engine performance, but with better gas mileage.

    The GL350 BlueTEC gets a facelift this year, with a restyled grille, bumpers, wheels and new lights. The clean-diesel engine can tow up to 7500 pounds, and has a cruising range of up to 600 miles at highway speeds.

  • 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 4matic

    Compact sport-utility vehicle with sports car performance

    By Nina Russin

    2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK

    2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK

    On the surface, the Mercedes-Benz  GLK looks more like a show car than an active lifestyle vehicle. Twenty-inch chrome wheels, part of a sport appearance package on the test car, can be misleading. Stylish as it is, the automaker’s first compact SUV is more than a pretty face.

    On-road performance is akin to a sports car. The GLK swallows up turns like a panther on the prowl. Its 3.5-liter V6 engine and seven-speed automatic transmission are so well suited to each other that shifts between gears are barely perceptible.
    Read the rest of this entry »

  • 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML550

    High-performance crossover vehicle
    By Nina Russin

    2008 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

    2008 Mercedes-Benz M-Class

    The M-Class is an a la carte offering that can fill lots of squares. Depending on the grade and options, it can function as a sport-utility vehicle with luxurious appointments, or a sports car with a very large cargo area. A clean diesel model makes it a green car as well.

    The ML550, equipped with a 382-horsepower V8 engine, is the sports car in the M-Class family. With a zero-to-sixty time of 5.6 seconds, it makes quick work of weekly grocery shopping.

    While the test car has many off-road handling features such as permanent four-wheel drive, hill start assist, and downhill descent control, an AMG sport package makes it more a car for the streets. The AMG option upgrades the standard wheels and tires to nineteen inch rims, adds special running boards and restyled front and rear bumpers. In general, I don’t like running boards on off-road cars: they have a way of attracting rocks, and ending up on the side of the trail.

    But on paved roads, the ML550 combines the performance of a European luxury sedan with the cargo capability of a sport-utility vehicle. The seven-speed automatic transmission comes with a unique shift lever on the steering column that operates with the touch of a finger. Additional steering wheel mounted buttons allow the driver to change gears manually.

    The electronic system uses computer controls to adjust shift points according to the driving situation. As with electronic steering and braking, there’s a certain leap of faith in abandoning the traditional mechanical systems. But if any company has the engineering finesse to make electronic systems bulletproof, it’s Mercedes-Benz.

    A fully independent suspension coupled with power rack-and-pinion steering gives the car a buttery smooth ride with excellent steering response at all speeds. The test car has optional air suspension, as part of the premium III package that also includes a bunch of interior upgrades, bi-xenon curve illuminating headlamps, headlamp washers and a power liftgate ($8500).

    The Airmatic suspension incorporates adaptive damping that makes real-time adjustments to the shocks depending on the driving situation. Despite its compliant ride, the M-Class stays flat in the corners, even at high speeds. I tested it on some decreasing radius cloverleafs, and the car refused to come unglued.

    I still find brake-by-wire a little grabby during sudden stops. But under normal conditions, it feels about the same as a mechanical system.

    There’s a backup hydraulic system that takes over if the brake-by-wire fails. For an old-fashioned duff like me, there’s security in brake fluid. Standard antilock braking, traction control and electronic stability program help the driver maintain directional control on wet or uneven road surfaces.

    The bi-xenon headlamps provide a long beam of light, close in color and intensity to daylight. The turn illuminating feature makes pedestrians and cyclists crossing at intersections easier to see.

    Standard rain-sensing wipers automatically adjust wiper speed, so the driver doesn’t have to switch the wipers on and off in intermittent rain.

    A stalk near the turn signal engages the cruise control. I find the proximity of the two stalks disconcerting: it’s too easy to mistakenly turn on the cruise control.

    A Parktronic rear backup warning system ($770) adds a camera with a wide angle lense that displays the area behind the car in the navigation screen. Not only does the system eliminate blind spots to the rear of the car, it also makes it much easier to back into a small space.

    Luxurious interior

    The base model comes standard with a high level of comfort and convenience features, including heated front seats, dual-zone climate control with a dust and pollen filter, four 12-volt power outlets, an eight speaker sound system with a MP3 jack, and redundant steering wheel controls. A power glass sunroof sheds ambient light into the rear of the car.

    There are plenty of cupholders for both rows of passengers, and the map pockets have molded bottle holders. The 60/40 split second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor.

    A leather trim package ($1975) adds upscale leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, and an ambient light package at a very upscale price. It’s pretty, but I personally wouldn’t fork out the cash for it.

    Interior upgrades that come with the premium III package include the navigation system, power driver seat, passenger seat and steering column with memory, power folding mirrors, a harman/kardon sound system with satellite radio, rear seat entertainment system and cargo organizer.

    The upgraded sound system will appeal to audiophiles, since it utilizes the latest in 5.1 surround sound. I’m not sure I would opt for the factory-installed navigation system. While aftermarket products can’t interface with the car’s software, they use the same global positioning satellites and work fine as electronic maps.

    The power liftgate is a great feature for anyone who spends a lot of time with their hands full. The M-Class cargo area is spacious and easy to utilize. Standard roof rails are designed to hold loads up to 220 pounds.

    Sporty styling

    The other day somebody had parked their first-generation M-Class next to the test car. While I don’t normally talk about styling updates, this one is significant. The first M-Class looked like a thinly-disguised minivan. The new car most definitely does not. Gone is the square rear end and uninspired grille.

    The new M-Class has sports car proportions, despite its high profile. The wheels are pushed far to the corners and the profile has an aerodynamic wedge shape, that also improves its coefficient of drag. A slanted C pillar echoes the rake of the windshield, making the vehicle look more like a passenger car than a traditional two-box design. A wedge that runs along the beltline, ending in the rear wheel arch, adds to the aerodynamic character. The front end of the car is slightly lower than the rear.

    The rear D pillars are thin and black to match the rear glass, so it looks like glass wraps around the back of the car. Similarly, the tail lamps have a wrap-around design, to break up the vertical lines.

    The grille is taller and the windshield proportionately shorter, with large sweeping headlamps that wrap around the corners of the car. Beneath the grille is an air scoop framed by two additional lamps, giving the front of the car an all-business look.

    Base price on the test car is $52,400. Option packages add almost $15,000. The test car has a MSRP of $67,800, including the $775 destination charge.

    The M-Class is produced stateside at Mercedes-Benz’s Huntsville, Alabama assembly plant.

    Likes: Sports car performance with the practicality of a sport-utility vehicle, the M-Class is a luxurious, fun ride.

    Dislikes: The 5.5-liter V8 engine is a bit of a gas guzzler. Running boards are attractive, but can be a liability during off-road driving.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Mercedes-Benz
    Model: ML550
    Year: 2008
    Base price: $52,400
    As tested: $67,800
    Horsepower: 382 Hp @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 391 lbs-ft @ 2800 rpm
    Zero-to-sixty: 5.6 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Towing: Yes
    First aid kit: N/A
    Fuel economy: 13/18 mpg city/highway

  • 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320CDI

    Diesel for a small planet
    By Nina Russin

    2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

    2007 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI

    I’m listening for the sound of diesel tick, but there is none. No clapity-clapity-clapity under the hood, and no black smoke billowing from the tailpipe. When I push on the gas pedal, I don’t have to count “One banana, two banana,” before the car moves forward. Acceleration off the line is strong and linear. This can’t possibly be a diesel, or can it?

    Here’s the best news: after over a hundred miles of city and highway driving, the gas tank is still three-quarters full. In fact, the new Mercedes-Benz M-Class CDI gets better fuel economy than its gas-powered cousins: about twenty-five percent better to be exact.

    Why are the new diesel cars so much better than the smoke, belching, sluggomobiles of yore? One reason is that the fuel itself is better. By federal ordinance, gas stations have to make reduced-sulfur diesel available this year. The reduced sulfur content enables engineers to use more effective emissions controls on the cars.

    The second, and perhaps most important advance has to do with the on-board computers that manage engine function. The new common-rail diesel engines inject fuel directly into the cylinders, giving the engines better power delivery and fuel economy. The turbochargers on the new M-Class CDI boost airflow through the engine by using exhaust-driven blowers. Since internal combustion engines are inherently inefficient, there’s almost no such thing as too much air, especially when the on-board computer can make instantaneous adjustments to the air/fuel mix, depending on the driving conditions.

    Miles to go before I refuel

    I start my M-Class test drive in rush-hour traffic. At five in the afternoon, the 101 freeway in Phoenix’s east valley is a parking lot. Maximum speed rarely tops 25 miles-per-hour. I pop in a compact disc and prepare for the long haul.

    An hour later, I arrive at my destination, which is coincidentally about twenty-five miles from where I started. The gas gauge is still on “full.” The drive home is about ten miles longer. The needle has moved slightly, but not much.

    The following day, I have to haul a few cartons of shoes between our two running shops. This will be a good chance to test the fold-down mechanisms on the second-row seats. The seat cushions flip forward; the seatbacks fold flat using a lever on the outside edge of each seatback. The operation takes about thirty seconds for each side. Once completed, there’s a large, flat load floor with cargo tie-down loops. I’d prefer an easy-to-clean vinyl floor to carpeting, but the carpeting wouldn’t stop me from buying the car.

    The M-Class could easily hold a bicycle with the front wheel removed with the second-row seats in place. With the seats folded flat, it could easily hold several, or in this case, about fifty pairs of shoes, a large clothing rack and the clothes that were hanging on it.

    This time traffic is lighter, so I can test the car’s acceleration, steering response and braking. The M-Class has plenty of punch off the line, merging into high-speed traffic, and passing other cars on the highway. A fully-independent suspension smoothes out any bumps in the road. The car rides on seventeen-inch wheels and R-rated tires, which give it a nice, stable footprint. The rack-and-pinion steering system offers excellent driver response, and a respectable turning radius of 37.9 feet.

    All cars come with a seven-speed automatic transmission, that the driver operates using a small, finger-sized lever on the steering column. The lever eliminates the long shift lever on the center console, giving the driver more elbow room.

    The M-Class has unibody construction, giving it the ride and handling of a passenger car. While unibody construction isn’t quite as durable as body-on-frame, it will probably meet the needs of most drivers, who drive on dirt roads, but who aren’t planning to tackle the Rubicon trail. Having driven the gas-powered M-Class through deep mud, over exposed roots and boulders, I can speak for its off-road capability, which is considerable. Permanent four-wheel drive is standard, but the M-Class doesn’t have a two-speed transfer case to provide the extremely low gears that some off-road driving requires.

    Standard downhill speed regulation and hill-start assist make it easy to climb and descend steep hills in complete control. The hill-descent function maintains a speed of between three and ten miles-per-hour, according to the driver’s choice, without using the brakes. The hill-start feature maintains brake pressure for a second after the driver releases the pedal, to keep the vehicle from sliding backwards on a steep hill.

    The round trip between the two shops adds another forty miles or so to the trip meter. The needle is about half way between the “full” and “three-quarters” marks. I’m relieved to know that the gas gauge works: I was starting to think that it might be stuck.

    Inside, pure luxury

    After all, it’s a Mercedes. The optional leather trim may not be practical, but it sure is comfy. Eight-way adjustable front bucket seats are standard, as is a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel.

    The Germans have finally accepted the fact that Americans won’t buy cars without cupholders. The M-Class has two, generous-sized cupholders in the center console: each will hold a large water bottle firmly in place. There are two additional cupholders for the rear-seat passengers. The two-tier bin in the center console has plenty of room for electronic devices or a small pack. The glovebox, also generous sized, has a jack for MP3 players or iPods. There are four twelve-volt power outlets.

    Both rows of seating have plenty of leg and shoulder room for adults. The test car came with the optional heating package that includes a heated steering wheel, front and rear heated seats. The warm spring weather in Phoenix wasn’t conducive to testing the seat heaters, but they’re a nice feature for drivers who live in four-season climates.

    High level of standard safety

    Safety has always been a Mercedes-Benz trademark: the M-Class is no exception. Standard safety features include four-channel, antilock brakes, traction control and electronic stability program, front, side and side-curtain airbags, front knee bolsters and front active headrest restraints.

    Visibility is good all the way around the vehicle. There is a standard rear wiper for rainy or snowy days. Mercedes-Benz’s Tele Aid system uses GPS to offer real-time vehicle location. Drivers can receive emergency assistance, information, or mechanical help by depressing the appropriate buttons on the rear-view mirror. Any driver who’s had a flat tire or run out of gas in the middle of the night knows how handy such a feature can be.

    Large, functional cargo area

    The cargo area comes with a standard tonneau cover to keep items out of sight. The cover is easy to remove for large loads by depressing a spring to one side. A button on the key fob automatically raises and lowers the rear hatch, making it easier to load large items in back. Roof rails are standard. Towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.

    The M-Class is assembled at Mercedes-Benz’s Vance, Alabama plant. The ML320CDI is currently available for test drives at dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: Exceptional fuel economy with no sacrifice in power and performance. The new common-rail diesel is also environmentally friendly. The M-Class is a great choice for drivers who want a mid-sized sport-utility vehicle with the ride and handling of a passenger car, and some off-road capability.

    Dislikes: Availability of low-sulfur diesel fuel is still somewhat limited.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $43,680*
    Price as tested: $59,425
    Horsepower: 215Hp @ 3800 r.p.m.
    Torque: 398 lbs.-ft. @ 2800 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No 
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 21/27 m.p.g. city/highway
    Comments: * Base price does not include $775 destination and delivery charge.

  • 2006 Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    By Jim Woodman

    Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    Mercedes-Benz ML 350

    I clearly recall my visit to the Mercedes M Class launch back in 1997. There was a buzz about this being the first Mercedes to be built in the United States in over 80 years. I assembled with many other auto writers in Charlottesville, Va. as we anxiously awaited our turns getting behind the wheel.

    Most of us were extremely impressed with the new M-Class and, as far as interior creature comforts, that first effort was 100% Mercedes luxury and the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant had produced a German masterpiece right here in America.

    Now, nearly nine years later, I got to check out the second generation M-Class, an ML 350, with a 268 horsepower V6 that produces 258 lb.-ft. of Torque. Much had changed in nine years, both with the vehicle and my life.

    I was now married with three small children, making the task of getting two car seats and a booster seat in the back seat a challenge worthy of any seasoned parent. Never mind the fact when we were kids our parents just tossed us into the back seat and had no qualms about spreading five or six of us across the same seat. Today, it’s a whole different ball game.

    Traveling with Small Children

    Traveling with small children today is as logistically challenging as organizing a military operation in a foreign country. God forbid we should forget a car seat, stroller, backpack or portable crib. It’s easy to understand why so many minivans and large SUVs are purchased by families. The pain at the pump is completely outweighed by the hassle of trying to fit all your children’s paraphernalia into a smaller vehicle.

    Thus our foray into the second generation M Class was going to be a test of space and comfort as much as performance and safety. We picked up our vehicle in Seattle and were pleasantly surprised at the room in the rear cargo area. It’s definitely an improvement since the first M Class and allowed us to fit all our gear, including stroller and portable crib, for a family of five within that cargo area.

    Folding the 60/40 split rear seats down and back up was a snap and I could easily visualize loading and unloading my bicycle easily. If I left the rear seats in place, there was still plenty of room to load a standard road bicycle but it would certainly necessitate removing the two quick release wheels.

    While we were able to fit two car seats on the ends, for our five-year-old and 16-month-old, getting the booster seat for our seven-year-old to slide into the middle was a hassle. Since there was just enough room to line up these seats, we had to really wrestle with fitting the seat belt into its middle slot. That said, it did work and while everybody was safe and secure, this would not be the vehicle for three car seats.

    The big change for this second-generation M Class is its styling, which, while definitely M-Class Mercedes in shape, is much more in line with the company’s other offerings. It’s longer, wider, and roomier. But the most important difference is that the ML350 has gone from trucklike body-on-frame construction to a carlike unibody structure for improved rigidity with less weight.


    Okay, enough on the changes over the last nine years. I was most interested in what the ML 350 had under the hood. Would the six-cylinder be plenty adequate for freeway acceleration and steep hills?
    I’m happy to report that the six-cylinder — which boasts 36 more horsepower than the ’05 model — has more than enough pep to keep me happy. The factory claims it will run 0-60 mph in 8.4 seconds. And, as my wife will attest, I hate an underpowered vehicle. The seven-speed automatic transmission — that’s right seven speeds — delivers clean crisp shifts, even on many of Seattle’s challenging hills.

    And speaking of shifting, for those that haven’t been around Mercedes in a few years, you might spend a few minutes looking for a shift lever. Mercedes has increased interior space by providing a simple, electronic shifting lever off the steering column. The lever is no different than an ordinary windshield wiper or headlights lever, except that it controls the park, reverse and drive transmission through a simple push of a button or up and down flicking of the lever.

    For those that like manual shifting, the ML 350 has a set of buttons behind the steering wheel that allow you to shift manually. While this is pretty cool, it’s more gimmicky than necessary as the automatic transmission is geared to handle adverse situations.

    The full-time four-wheel-drive system splits torque evenly between the front and rear axles in most conditions. An electronic traction-control system helps control torque distribution to each wheel, and the engine, transmission, and antilock brake systems communicate with it for optimal traction control on or off pavement. I always felt solid, in control and comfortable on Seattle’s wet road conditions.

    If off-road driving is your gig, the Downhill Speed Regulation and Hill-Start Assist systems aid low-speed maneuvering on steep grades, particularly in loose conditions. While I didn’t take this vehicle off-road, I’m very impressed with what’s offered and would certainly feel safe in doing so.

    Comfort and Convenience

    From a comfort and convenience standpoint, our test vehicle was outfitted with 8-way power front bucket seats, DVD Navigation and Sirius Satellite radio to name a few. Being somewhat familiar with Seattle, we became very reliant on the Navigation system. While at times it directed us flawlessly, many times we found it wasn’t generating the quickest or best route.

    Navigation menus are controlled by context-sensitive buttons to the sides of the screen, while acceptance of commands and navigation of the map display is done by a small joystick button. It’s a little tricky getting used to but becomes almost second nature after using it a few days.

    That said, DVD Navigation is a lifesaver if you truly don’t know where you’re going or need to find the nearest gas station or restaurant. Whether you’re taking the most efficient route or not, you do know you’ll definitely reach your destination.

    While my current family needs exclude me from being a real potential M Class buyer, I came away from this drive very impressed with this newest generation M Class and would seriously consider this as our family vehicle as my kids graduate from car seats. No question that three adults would fit comfortably in the rear seat, with their own rear climate control and dual power outlets.

    And safety-conscious buyers can also rest assured that the M-Class delivers on all fronts. With a reinforced body cage and dual front air bags, including side window air bags for front and rear passengers, I felt pretty secure that my family was safe in a moderate collision.

    While it seems the price has slowly creeped up on the M Class since its 1997 introduction, at $48,825 with a sweet array of options, luxury class buyers will be satisfied with the fact the ML 350 is all Mercedes luxury and performance. It’s also nice to know the M Class is built entirely at the Tuscaloosa, Ala. plant in the United States.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $39,750
    Price as tested: $48,825
    Horsepower: 268 @ 6000 rpm
    Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2400 to 5000 rpm
    0 to 60: 8.4 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: Yes
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 16 city / 20 highway

  • 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

    “Sports Tourer” with seating for six

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

    2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

    The newest Mercedes-Benz model offers seating for up to six adults, a load floor up to seven feet in length, two available engines, and permanent all-wheel drive.

    First came the sport-utility vehicle, then the cross-utility vehicle, and most recently, the sports-tourer.  What’s the difference between the three?

    A sport-utility vehicle is the most like a truck, both in terms of ride height and construction. It is taller than a passenger car, and is often built using a body-on-frame design, which has certain advantages for off-roading and towing.

    A cross-utility vehicle combines the cargo and passenger configuration of a sport-utility vehicle with the performance of a passenger car, often by using a passenger car chassis.  That implies unibody construction, for a smoother more comfortable ride, and in some cases, a lower step-in height. Some manufacturers consider their five-door hatchback models to be cross-utility vehicles, because of the enhanced cargo capacity.

    A sports tourer looks like a station wagon, but with edgier styling, a hot engine, and all-wheel drive. It has the fuel economy of a passenger car, the style and performance of a sports coupe, plus enhanced passenger and cargo capability.

    The 2005 Dodge Magnum was the first sports tourer, combining an available HEMI engine, all-wheel drive, and exterior styling that would make Ward Cleaver blush. The new Mercedes-Benz R-Class that goes on sale this October follows in that tradition, but with a luxury bent.

    Available with either a V6 or V8 engine, the R-Class rides on a chassis that is about an inch longer than the S-Class sedan. It features individual seating for up to six adults.

    When the second and third-row seats are folded flat, the R-Class has a seven-foot long flat load floor that will hold bicycles, wetsuits, camping equipment, and food coolers. It is easily long enough to sleep on. Purchase the optional panoramic sunroof, and you can literally sleep under the stars without worrying about mosquitoes.

    The Ride and Handling of a Passenger Sedan

    The R-Class comes in two models: the R350, powered by a 268-horsepower V6 engine, and the R500, with a 302-horsepower V8. Both models feature Mercedes’ new seven-speed automatic transmission, and permanent all-wheel drive.

    The unit-body chassis has four-wheel independent suspension for silky on-road performance, rack-and-pinion steering, and standard safety features including antilock brakes, and electronic stability program that includes all-wheel traction control.

    An adjustable air suspension is optional on both models. It allows the driver to vary suspension damping and ride height, adding up to three inches of ground clearance for off-road driving.

    While the five-liter V8 engine has significantly more power than the six, buyers should consider the smaller engine, both for its fuel economy and lower base price: $48,000 as opposed to $55,000.

    Mercedes-Benz engineers did a good job of producing a block that is both durable and peppy.  It is the first V6 to incorporate double-overhead camshafts and variable valve timing for better acceleration and fuel economy.

     The engine reaches peak torque (258 foot-pounds) at 2,400 rpm., and holds it up to 5,000 rpm. The lightweight aluminum block has a forged steel crankshaft with four main bearings. Translated, that means that it’s built to be ridden hard and put away wet.

    It accelerates from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 7.8 seconds.  Merging into high-speed traffic and passing on two-lane roads are a non-issue.

    In a test drive down the coast of northern California, the six cylinder engine had enough torque to safely pass slower vehicles on winding two-lane roads.

    While the R-Class has the low stance of a passenger sedan, it is much longer and wider than the standard issue, and this becomes obvious on narrow roads.

    However visibility is good all the way around the vehicle. The mirrors do a good job of minimizing blind spots, including those created by the relatively wide rear pillars.

    An optional bi-xenon lighting system with fog lamps interfaces with the steering system. The headlamps swivel to light the corners: a handy feature on dark, rural roads.

    The seven-speed automatic transmission utilizes the same type of shift lever as the new M-Class. Unlike the traditional, manual shift stalks, the lever electronically engages drive, reverse and park with the flick of a finger. Drivers can use controls on the back of the steering wheel to manually select forward gears.

    Full-time all-wheel drive incorporates three electronic differentials to send power to the wheel or wheels with the most traction. It provides sure-footed performance on rain, snow or ice-covered roads and unimproved roads.

    Because the R-Class has less than six inches of ground clearance, drivers who will be traveling through deep snow or on rutted roads should seriously consider the air suspension for its adjustable height feature.

    Comfortable Seating for up to Six Adults

    All three rows in the R-Class have individual seats with separate adjustments, audio plugs, reading lights, armrests and cupholders. Leather trim is standard on all models.

    Dual-zone climate control is standard. An optional three-zone system adds a set of controls for the second-row passengers. Specially coated glass on the front and side windows comes with that system, to shield passengers from the sun’s infrared rays.

    An optional DVD system has dual inputs so that second-row passengers can watch different programs on two screens.

    In between the front seats, two large cupholders hold 32-ounce cups. A fitting in between comes out and works as a bottle opener. There is also a two-bin storage compartment with spaces for cellular telephones, PDAs and compact disks. 

    All seats have ample hip, leg and shoulder room, and are well designed for lower back support. A walk-through between the second-row seats provides easier access to the third row.

    There is an optional center console for the second-row passengers with more cupholders and storage bins. The map pockets in the doors also have bottle holders.

    A Cargo Area Large Enough To Sleep In

    It takes about five minutes to fold the second and third-row seats flat, created a load floor seven feet in length. The cargo area can easily hold a mountain bike or two road bikes, plus coolers, luggage and camping equipment. For most adults, it is also long enough to sleep in.

    The optional panoramic sunroof is 5’7” in length. It has roller blinds to shade passengers from harsh overhead light. At night, it opens up for a great view of the stars. The cargo area comes with a standard first aid kit.

     The undersized spare tire and pump is located under the cargo floor. Roof rails and racks are available as options.

    Standard Safety Features

    All models come with standard front, side and side-curtain airbags that protect all three rows of passengers. A rollover sensor will deploy the curtain airbags automatically when needed. Antilock braking and electronic stability program with all-wheel traction control is standard on all models, as is a low tire pressure warning system.

    Coming To a Dealership Near You

    The R-Class models roll into dealerships this October. An AMG performance version comes during the 2007 model year. Pricing begins at $48,00 for the R350 and $55,500 for the R500. There is a $775 destination charge on both models.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $48,000*
    Price as tested: 
    Horsepower: 268 @ 6,000 r.p.m.
    Torque: 258 lbs.-ft @ 5,000 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 7.8 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: Yes  
    Towing: No
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: Not available at the time of  the test drive.
    Comments: *Base price does not include a $775 destination fee.