The R500 is big. Bigger than it looks. And way bigger than it feels from its driver seat. At 203 inches long, the R500 dwarfs a Cadillac Escalade by 5 inches. Mercedes says around 64 percent of that length is available for people. That may or may not be true, but the R500 is dang roomy inside.
It seats six comfortably. Not two tall people, two medium-sized folk and a couple of Gary Colemans, but six actual full-grown adults. Although the second-row captain’s chairs passed the enormous rear-facing child seat test with room to spare, it’s the usefulness and comfort of the third row that’s most impressive. Mercedes says there’s more than 30 inches of legroom back there, which is a class-leading number, plus the rear-quarter windows swing open with the press of a button for added ventilation.
Seat comfort is high for all on board, and Mercedes has made third-row access easy by expanding the length of the rear doors and putting both second-row seats on spring-loaded hinges. They jump out of the way with the flick of a lever, and snap back into place just as easily. The long rear doors can be a problem in tight parking spaces, but Mercedes felt the additional access was worth it.
Mercedes has also supplied each seat position with a cupholder, seat adjustments, armrests, climate control vents and side curtain airbags. And comfort options on our test car added a third zone to the climate control system, the largest sunroof we’ve ever seen and a unique rear-seat entertainment center that adds two screens that can be used exclusively from one another. Junior can be watching Scarface on one screen, while little Mary simultaneously plays Resident Evil 4 on the other.
Upfront, Mom and Dad get pampered as well with a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, toasty seat heaters, a navigation system and satellite radio. The ability to start the car with the key in your pocket is also a nice luxury, but the coolest things are the front cupholders. They’re huge. Big-Gulp-and-beyond huge. And there’s also…wait for it…a built-in bottle opener. Too cool.
But moms with small children aren’t the only market for the R-Class, according to Mueller, although late-forming affluent families are a target. Mercedes also hopes to attract socialite empty-nesters with this vehicle.
People like Phyllis Hellwig, 60, who opened the R500′s big back door, flipped the second-row seat forward, took one look at the roomy third row and said, “Wow, even my old lady friends can climb in there.”
Behind that third-row bench, which is split 50/50, is 15.2 cubic feet of cargo room, about the same amount of room in the trunk of an S-Class. Drop the third row, which takes two flicks of a finger, and that space grows to 42.2 cubic feet. Remove the center console, which is really easy, and fold the two second-row captain’s chairs, and that space grows again to 85 cubic feet. If you need more, you probably know the lyrics to “Convoy” and possess a commercial driver license.
We should also mention the power liftgate, which impressed Phyllis, and the cargo area’s ability to swallow a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood, which did not.
We began our 10 days with the R500 by driving it 332 miles from Carmel, California, down to our Santa Monica office, a road trip that perfectly displayed its ability to eat interstate.
The trip was executed in supreme comfort. The cabin is quiet, its steeply raked windshield provides awesome visibility and the front seats are shaped to perfection. We also averaged 18.5 mpg, and made the trip on one tank of premium.
As much as we like the optional Airmatic suspension, the differences between its three settings are slim. About 100 miles south of Carmel, we decided the normal or middle setting was perfect, and we never really messed with it again.
The R500′s 5.0-liter single-overhead-cam V8 seems to have been powering Mercedes models since spats were cool, but it remains one of our favorite engines. Here it’s partnered with the company’s equally venerable full-time all-wheel-drive system and its new seven-speed automatic. Mercedes says 35 percent of the R-Class’ components are shared with the ML-Class sport-utility vehicle, and this powertrain is a large part of that. This is the same setup you would get in an ML500.
As satisfying off idle as it is at its 6,000-rpm redline, the V8 is rated at 302 hp at 5,600 rpm and 339 lb-ft of torque at 2,700 rpm. It’s plenty. Despite the R500′s portly 4,845 pounds, it sprints from zero to 60 mph in just 7.4 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 91 mph. That’s about the same performance as we’ve measured for the BMW X5 4.8is, which has 53 more horsepower than the R and a fraction of the cargo room.
The seven-speed transmission has a lot to do with that performance. Although we think it could downshift a little quicker, it’s geared perfectly and clicks off swift upshifts when the driver has his foot down.
We tested the R’s handling with the suspension in the Sport setting, and were pleased with the vehicle’s agility. Although its steering is a little slow, body roll is well controlled, and the R’s all-wheel drive, standard 18-inch wheels and tires and ESP stability control give this very large vehicle surprising grip. We managed a best slalom run of 57.4 mph, which means the R outhandles most SUVs.
It can outstop them, too. Big four-wheel disc brakes, with 13.8-inch front rotors and standard ABS and BrakeAssist, haul this big vehicle down from 60 mph in just 126 feet.
Around town, those strong dynamics combine with a very tight turning circle to make the R-Class much more city-friendly than any SUV its size.
A League of its Own for a While
For a short while, the R-Class will have this premium sports tourer thing all to itself. On some level, the V6-powered R350 might compete with the still cheaper Pacifica, but the R500, which has a base price of over $56,000, is in a class by itself. That is until the Audi Q7 and other competitors from BMW, Lexus and Lincoln come to market over the next two years.
Until then, the only premium sports tourer choice is an excellent one. Pricey, too. The sticker price of our nearly loaded R500 test vehicle approached $75,000.
But if the idea of driving a station wagon still makes you cringe, then we suggest you listen to the great Eugene Levy, who in the cinematic magnum opus National Lampoon’s Vacation said, “Now, I owe it to myself to tell you, Mr. Griswold, that if you are thinking of taking the tribe cross country, this is the automobile you should be using. The Mercedes-Benz R500. You think you hate it now, but wait till you drive it.”