By on October 29, 2014

2006 R500 Courtesy

I felt like a spy within my own company. It was a hot summer day in 2003 and I was at the DaimlerChrysler proving grounds in Laredo, Texas to attend a focus group on the upcoming 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class minivan/crossover/sport touring wagon. My dozen or so fellow attendees were all wealthy owners of high-end Mercedes-Benz cars. I was here because the Mercedes-Benz USA focus group invite filter did not recognize my net worth nor the fact that I worked for Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. And I was not about to tell anyone that…

The Laredo facility included an assortment of handling, hill-climb and torture tracks, all on the infield of an imposing high-banked 5-mile circle track. The first impression of the scene was intoxicating to a car nut: Hey, there’s a Dodge Magnum, looks just like the spy photos! There goes the next generation S-Class! We were shown the upcoming GL-Class and the next-generation M-Class SUVs. Those vehicles, as well as the future S-class circling the track, were lightly masked but easily recognizable while the “sport touring wagon” was heavily, almost comically, disguised.  It looked like a giant black shoe box with a sloping hood.

My group of five folks and an engineer jumped into the future R-Class. The interior was well-crafted and amazingly roomy: I could stretch my legs out in the third row. Our moderator led us through the various obstacle courses around the grounds, switching drivers along the way. Finally we headed for the 5-mile circle. It was “Clockwise Day” which seemed strange to someone used to driving counterclockwise on oval tracks.  Our leader cranked it up to an indicated 150 mph and took one hand off the wheel to demonstrate the wagon’s stability. We were duly impressed.

We then each proceeded to take two laps each behind the wheel and several of us hit the magic 150 mph barrier. We were quietly cruising with six people aboard and blasting past Plymouth Neons on the inside lane doing endurance testing.  The original R500 with the 302 hp V-8 had a governed top speed of 135 mph. The Benz engineers would not answer questions about this drivetrain. In retrospect, I think it must have been the 503 hp V-8 from the planned R63 AMG under the hood.

We always said the R-Class would make a great hearse...

We always said that the R-Class would make a great hearse…

Years later I think: Were we really doing 150 mph with six passengers in a prototype with a drag coefficient of Melissa McCarthy?  Was the speedometer clocked? Or is driving on a banked, circular track as safe and easy as driving in a straight line? Regardless, I highly doubt there are many car companies who would allow a bunch of yahoos to drive their mock-up models at high speeds on their secret proving grounds. That day in Laredo was one of the highlights of my time in the car business.

Two years later when I first saw a production R-Class, I was shocked: it looked awful, a combo of awkward lines. I thought about Laredo. Were they hiding the R’s styling from us because previous groups had given it a thumbs down? Or was Germany so proud of the edgy styling that they did not want it leaked?  By disguising its looks, letting us behind the scenes to drive flat-out at their proving grounds, and not talking price or specs, were they guaranteeing that we each would  vote an enthusiastic “yes” when asked if we would consider buying one, which we did?

I was pleased to see one suggestion from our focus group about the poor location of the third-row shoulder belt hanger had been addressed.


It appears the Daimler is now selling their Laredo test track. Note the 2-mile oval track within the 5-mile highbank circle.

Daimler is now selling their Laredo test track. Note the 2-mile oval track inside the 5-mile circle track

The R-Class was released in the summer of 2005 to the sounds of crickets on the showroom floors. Press reactions were mixed, (“It’s big and it’s ugly, but inside it you can live like a king,” said the Sunday Times.) Within 30 days of the launch, Benz had to add dealer incentives to counter consumer resistance to the base MSRP of $48,000 for the R350 and $55,500 for the R500. A constellation of factors led to the R-class being a rare failure for Daimler: high pricing, murky marketing and product positioning, mediocre gas mileage, the recession and most of all due to its undeniable ugliness.

Sales of the R-Class in the US peaked at 18,168 units in 2006, far short of the corporate objective of 50,000 sales per year. Less than 3,000 were sold each year between 2009 and 2011 before the car was discontinued in North America in 2012. The R-Class continues to be assembled in Mercedes’ Alabama factory for sale in overseas markets. (US dealers toured the plant recently and upon seeing the R line, several joked, “Oh noooo, it’s back!”)

I had an R-Class company car in 2009 and it rode as well as I remembered, every bit an S-Class on the highway. Even better was the fact it was the CDI diesel variant with its gobs of torque and great gas mileage, a truly underappreciated engine.

I still think the R stands for Repulsive but if I could find one of those eighty 2007 R63 AMGs brought into this country…

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46 Comments on “The Streets Of R-Ado...”

  • avatar

    What’s the big van behind it in the funeral photo? A Hyundai? They look similar as far as frontal shape is concerned.

    I remember the ad for this car was all about safety. A well-heeled mom drove with a lone passenger in the second row, a little girl I think. I believe there was another ad with 6 business execs on their way to a meeting. It left me wondering who the car was for in the real world.

  • avatar

    You would think they could redesign it into something more attractive. Unfortunately, they really can’t call the replacement the R class because that will likely hurt sales.

  • avatar

    What they failed to realize is that luxury buyers *don’t* want their cars to look practical. They want to hide any practicality to the greatest extent possible. So instead of an R-class the big Benz that sells well is the even less efficient, worse-riding, smaller-inside GL Class, because it has the “I BASH ROCKS” image rather than the practical-car stigma.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      That’s not exactly true, but they did aim for a very small niche by making it ugly. I think this market is basically covered by the Denali/Escalade, and by the Range Rover LWB on the high end.

      A cousin has one. He has 4 teenagers and lives 400 miles from the extended family. Seems to like it well enough as a family truckster.

      • 0 avatar

        The GL450 is much better suited competition for the Suburban/Yukon/Escalade. Unsure as to what segment MB was pitting the R Class against… maybe they saw something in the Toyota Venza- wait, there’s no third row seat there… ???

        But would I be shopping for a third-row, full size SUV, give me a Sequoia (because that engine is bliss) or a Land Cruiser if I’ve really got some coin.

        And who the hell buys Range Rovers anyway, other than successful porn stars, basketball players, and smug Brits?

  • avatar

    Not only ugly but extremely unreliable and poorly built. Owned a 2007 cdi that we purchased new. Although practical and easy to drive, the R was the most undependable vehicle I have driven since my Dad’s ’73 Fury III. Electronics failures, constantly burned out lamps, fuel pump failures, and my favorite, the complete failure of all systems during a blinding snowstorm, the cause of which could not be diagnosed. Put me off the MB marque forever.

    • 0 avatar

      “…but extremely unreliable and poorly built.”

      Benzes are held to fairly high manufacturing standards, but as far as reliability goes, I agree- to an extent.

      Mercedes-Benz, from a reliability standpoint, is a coin toss. Either very reliable or everything but, with very few falling in the middle.

      Sad but true.

  • avatar

    “…but if I could find one of those eighty 2007 R63 AMGs brought into this country…”

    The Mommy-mobile from hell…the ULTIMATE Q-ship…sign me up.

  • avatar

    I always turn my head to look at them, so they definetly have a presense as most big MB do. Besides I’m not going to say anything bad about a station wagon, when so few exist.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    I wouldn’t blame Daimler for the manufacturing and design faults,it was the cancer named Chrysler that inflicted that curse upon them. As for being ugly…it fits right in today and from my POV it looks better that any Cadillac escalade/truck built .

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      The contemporary S Class had similar electronic problems. Was that also because of Chrysler? I’ve heard that it was because they had 53 CPUs and a wiring loom that would chafe and short in unpredictable locations.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s pretty well accepted that Benz’s quality problems date back to the mid-90’s The ’98 ML (built in the same Alabama plant as the R-Class) was notoriously problematic from the start.

      That’s really impressive if Chrysler’s problems can infect Benz through the space-time continuum, before the merger.

      • 0 avatar

        I got to closely examine and test-drive a ’98 M-Class today. First of all, it lacked features that should have been standard or available on such a pricey truck in that day and age, and second, it just did not drive or ride well. Thing is, it didn’t look to have been abused and was taken care of within a reasonable standard…it just didn’t hold up from an engineering standpoint…

        • 0 avatar

          M-class was very affordable back then. I remember thinking “wow, only $36k?!”

        • 0 avatar
          Car Ramrod

          A friend’s mother got one of the very first ML320’s off the line. Less than a month in, the transmission failed. MB provided a loaner for at least two weeks because they wanted to rip the drivetrain apart to figure out why (well, that and the fact that they probably couldn’t get a new tranny any faster).

          Honestly, the interior of these things sucked compared to the contemporary E-class. Also, consumer reports said that the average ML had something like 240% more reported problems than the average new vehicle. I remember it did not fit on the magazine’s chart.

    • 0 avatar

      You have no basis for blaming Chrysler for MB quality.

      Don’t forget that $1K bill to change the battery.

  • avatar

    Almost bought one for my wife. I thought it would be a cut above the average minivan and at the same cost (used, natch).
    The ride was middling, it wouldn’t move at all unless you were very agressive with the gas leading to an overly mushy acceleration experience. The interior wasn’t very S-class on this model, it was midrange and didn’t really feel special like I thought an MB would. My wife was nonplussed and when the dealer refused to deal, I walked. It was probably for the best as I read a MB mechanic on a forum bashing the R-class for serious unreliability. Who knows how much truth there was to the statement, but it makes me feel better about walking, so I’ll say it was highly accurate.

    • 0 avatar

      R-Classes are probably the least reliable car built during their model run besides the CL. They are decently easy to fix most of their common issues, and have made most Mercedes techs plenty of money over the years.

    • 0 avatar

      Plenty of truth to that statement. They are probably the least dependable Mercedes built during their run besides the CL. They are pretty easy to work on though, and because of this they have made the average Mercedes tech a lot mof money.

  • avatar

    One of those R63s was owned by an executive at a company where I used to work. He was also responsible for some other interesting metal in the parking garage (a smattering of Ferraris, a 300SL Gullwing…)

  • avatar

    I read up on these when I was shopping for my Sienna. I love the idea of a minivan with a diesel.

    Alas, they cost too much, didn’t beat my Sienna in terms of MPG, and they failed to man up on the practicality and put sliding doors on it. (Gull wing doors would also have been acceptable.). Oh, and they cost too much to buy (and presumably to maintain).

    Practical family cars are a brutally competitive segment, especially since parents, by definition, have something more important to spend their money on. I wanted to like it because of the diesel option, but the spec sheet showed that Mercedes didn’t feel the need to be competitive with “lesser” brands – so I stopped shopping there, and bought a better car for less money from the “lesser” brand.

    I don’t value the logo on the car very much, but I value what’s under the hood. But I ain’t buying an expensive impractical gas guzzler just because it has a diesel engine.

    • 0 avatar

      In spite of the out of bounds comparison (really?), the fact that these got tarnished with the minivan stigma was just another nail.

      • 0 avatar

        I cross shopped them (during the research phase), and the Sienna won decisively.

        What’s out of bounds about that?

        • 0 avatar

          Then we were just having a misunderstanding. When you said compared, I thought you meant more seriously than just on paper.

          Anyone who finds the Sienna meets their desires isn’t going to pay the MB price (which today includes less reliability and longevity). Like many things, ten percent more refinement generally costs a lot more than ten percent more dollars.

          • 0 avatar

            “Like many things, ten percent more refinement generally costs a lot more than ten percent more dollars.”

            Well said. Very well said.

  • avatar

    I owned the diesel version and loved it. Needed a new transmission at only 77K though plus crap resell I left it alone and went back to Lexus.

  • avatar

    I was at a park a few weeks ago and saw an R63 rolling by. Actually heard it first from over a football field away then saw it. It’s a strange sounding beast of an exhaust, especially when juxtaposed with the ungainly van shape. I didn’t realize it was so rare. The R63 driver had probably just picked up his kids from soccer practice.

  • avatar

    I’ve driven a purple/maroon R63. One of 80 you say? Intresting. Personally without sliding doors an R makes no sense. People who want a wagon will go for an E. The ones who want an SUV/AAV would go for an ML. I do see a few with livery plates though.

  • avatar

    How much are R-classes? I have been in one, and it had prominent block-off switches. Not sure why’d you’d get this over a more practical car like the Odyssey Touring, but image…

  • avatar

    My brother bought one of these for his wife. So … she drove his BMW.

    Me: this is pretty sporty for a minivan.
    Bro: It’s not a fsxng minivan!
    Me: so, what is it?
    Bro; I think they call it a..
    Me: it’s a minivan.
    Bro: (does a Dennis Leary impersonation at me)

  • avatar

    Just an uglier version of Chrysler Pacifica. Don’t forget the company was called Daimler-Chrysler back then.

  • avatar

    R-klasse is the only minivan/CUV/SUV looking thing my wife would consider driving because she likes the looks. I like the way it looks, too. I like the original design more than the facelift. GL-klasse looks terrible in my eyes compared to the R.

    Too bad they drive REALLY bad. I test drove an R500 the same day I test drove an MDX. The R-klasse drove like a wooden wheeled buggy, while the MDX felt like a sports car in comparison. The steering was especially bad in the R500. I would never buy it. Love the look, hate the drive.

    Fantastic front seats, though…

  • avatar

    I had a neighbor that bought brand new an R-class. As we were driving out to dinner, I accidentally said, I like your Pacifica. I thought I was going to have to walk home that night.

  • avatar

    We’ve had an ’06 R350 4Matic since new. Originally my wife’s daily driver, it has now passed to the hands of our 16 year old daughter. Is it pretty? Not especially. Economical? Not particularly; six cylinders have to work pretty hard to move all this heft around. Fun to drive? Hardly, but handling is competent and predictable when it counts. Cheap to own? Actually, not too bad. Never stranded, no major unexpected issues, and just a couple minor warranty-related items when new. That’s not to say it’s cheap to fix, but we certainly have not experienced some of the horror stories of other owners. On long road trips or through snowy weather, the R still shines bright. Sit in the second row (early models only had captain’s chairs, no 2nd row bench), and the experience is not unlike being in private jet. Overall, the ownership experience for us has been a good one.

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