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The 2011 R-class: The Mercedes of Minivans

What’s the most disrespected vehicle in Mercedes-Benz’s lineup? The R-class — by a mile.

The R-class has seemed like an orphan since its inception. Spawned by the ill-fated merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, it is built in Mercedes’ Alabama plant, where the spirit of Carl Benz is seldom seen. Even Mercedes didn’t seem to know what to do with the R-class when it arrived; marketers defined the R as a “sports tourer” when it was clear that only the absence of sliding doors kept it from slipping into the minivan category.

Sales have never approached expectations. Mercedes hoped to sell 100,000 of them globally a year. But U.S. volume peaked in 2006 at 18,168, and when annual sales dropped down to the tune of 10 million last year, Mercedes managed to find new owners for only 2,825 R’s.

With hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the development of the R, Mercedes has decided to freshen up its design for 2011 and reposition it to broaden its appeal. In its latest literature, Mercedes compares it to an SUV, a luxury wagon, and a sports sedan.

The last is not as far-fetched as you might think. Put up against the S-class, the R fares surprisingly well; at the very least, it is a lot of vehicle for the money.

At 203 inches, the R is nearly as long as the flagship S-class sedan. It’s also a bit wider and stretches out to more wheelbase. And at over two-and-a-half tons, the R weighs nearly 750 pounds more than an S.

Yet with its 210-horsepower BlueTEC turbo-diesel engine, it promises better fuel economy — 18 city/24 highway vs. 15 city/23 highway for the S — and costs nearly $40,000 less. Base sticker price for the R-class is $51,740 versus $91,600 for the S-class.

For all that, the R-class remains something of an oddity. It is configured to carry six adults in three rows of seats, but it is hard to imagine the circumstances when that might be useful. A family with four grown children might find this useful, though aren’t large families a rarity these days? Or maybe a basketball team with its coach could make good use of the space?

The design has been cleaned up in front, but the long sweeping curve of the roofline remains intact. It dives somewhat abruptly into a corner just above the rear tail lamps, a feature that has led some to complain that, in black, the R-class resembles a hearse.

From the driver’s seat, the view is traditional Mercedes. There are lots of controls at hand, but some are inconveniently located and others are more complicated to operate than they need to be. The cruise-control stalk intrudes on the turn-signal lever, and the audio system defies adjustment while driving.

You can’t fault the quality of the materials or the soundness of the assembly here or anywhere else on the car, however; everything here is top shelf.

The Palladium Silver test car came with a raft of helpful options, including a power lift-gate, keyless start, and rear-view camera that brought the as-tested price to $66,810. The camera was particularly helpful in guiding the R’s nearly 17 feet of steel, glass, and rubber into parking slots and other tight spaces.

Getting started exposed the R’s 5200-lb. mass and diesel powertrain. Sixty miles an hour arrives in a relatively leisurely 8.6 seconds. Once underway, the diesel’s robust torque provides plenty of oomph and the car feels at home. It handled the twisty country roads of New York’s Duchess County competently if not enthusiastically, and it easily kept pace with a flock of motorcyclists.

You can make a case for the R350’s value, utility, and fuel economy. But it still feels out of place, both in the Mercedes lineup and in the car market as a whole. Like the Ford (F) Flex, it ventures bravely into automotive white space by trying to package minivan utility in a more stylish wrapping. But until the concept gains wider acceptance, it is likely to remain something of the odd car out.

See also:

Record sales for recession-proof luxury cars

Behind the curtain at Honda