The old R-Class was only saved by the unexpected sales in China, and the new model has had a few tweaks but it still fails to impress.
2011 Mercedes R-Class
Where to now for the R-Class, the Mercedes-Benz that defined all that was wrong with the era of profligate car making?
For sure, the R-Class doesn't know and neither, it seems, has Benz finally made up its mind about what it is and what it isn't.
When it landed, the much-hyped brainchild of the now-head of Benz design, Gordon Wagener, it was the crossover of all crossovers; a car to fill white space in Benz's line-up.
But it didn't work. In fact, in spite of some historical revisionists in Benz's marketing department, it was a disaster, saved by just two things.
One of them - the cost-effectiveness of building the thing off the GL 4x4 platform in the same Alabama factory - could be foreseen. The other - the car's boom in a Chinese market that didn't exist at its birth - was just a lucky coincidence.
So big is the car in China now that 35 per cent of the 20,000 R-Classes built each year are shipped straight there rather than languishing in showrooms in other regions.
But that was back when it was a crossover. Now, with a new nose, some new engine hardware and a few tweaks inside, it's not a crossover anymore. It's an SUV. That's because Benz identified its lack of a singular purpose as one of the reasons for its slow sales in its intended markets (not to mention that it launched with just six seats and never recovered from there). So a new classification ought to fix it. But will it?
Probably not, to be honest. There are good points about the new R-Class, for sure, but most of them are only good points when you relate them to the old one, rather than to any other competing vehicle.
For starters, it's less ugly, for sure. There are new headlights, new daytime-running lights and an upright grille that is supposed to project strength and fast-lane motorway cred.
That's always helpful, but if the more-coherent family face will get them looking, the new engines are the things with the best chance of keeping them there.
I tested three R-Classes, the R350 CDI turbo-diesel V6, the R350 petrol V6 and the R500 all-wheel drive V8 and, curiously, while the V8 was the sweetheart of them, it would be the diesel you could live with every day, if only this fuel was more readily available in the UAE.
That's because it has strength everywhere and what tremors there are from the diesel's exertions have a lot of metal to hide in before they get to you in the driver's seat. And it goes. It's only a second or so slower to 100kph than the far-thirstier V8, but it eats the petrol pinnacle in a rolling sprint.
Down below those acres of bonnet space, the R350CDI might muster 260hp at 3,800rpm, but it's got a tremendous 640Nm of torque right there from 1,600rpm. It's a low-revving engine, for sure, but the seven-speed automatic has enough cogs to keep slipping through so you're never caught short.
It's the only one of the engines that felt like it was always up for the challenge of moving 2,250kg of R-Class every time you asked it to.
Also, (even though you'll be hard pressed to replicate this on a normal drive), it posted 8.5L/100km on the combined cycle for 223 grams of CO2/km.
In fact, its main problem as a family wagon-SUV-executive express-non-boring limo or whatever else you can think for it to do, is that it is so heavy that it ends up with just 630kg of payload. While it can be optioned with four, six or seven seats, six hefty adults and a bit of ski/surf/footy gear is going to see you trending towards illegal.
We drove the V6 petrol, too, and that's about all we want to say about that, because it's not bad in a straight sprint, laggardly on in-gear sprints, not especially smooth and has about the same fuel consumption as the V8.
So Middle Eastern drivers may as well get the V8, as it is a much nicer machine. A lovely engine, even though it's getting pretty old, the 5.0L punches out 382hp and 530Nm of torque, but its charm is that its delivery is so linear compared to the big mid-range surge of the diesel V6.
It's free of tremors everywhere and, as soon as it's got 4,000 revs on board, it just wants to keep spinning and spinning and making that wonderful, deep bellow. For an engine hauling 2.265 tonnes, it does a fair job of sprinting to 100kph in 6.3 seconds.
But it uses 55 per cent more fuel than the diesel and in daily life-type rev ranges where the diesel is strong, the V8 is often waiting for another few hundred rpm to get cracking.
The interiors have not been skimped on, with a significant upgrade across the board. The thing that gets you is how practical it actually is, from its air suspension to its adaptive damping that copes with the harshest potholes (though some of them do throw the rear end uncomfortably sideways on its springs without actually disturbing the traction). It soaks up 550L of luggage, but can stretch out to 1,950L if you fold down the seats. Or, if you take the long-wheelbase setup, it has 2,385L of luggage with the seats removed.
There's so much interior luxury (and the potential for optioning up even more luxury) that you get the feeling sometimes that it's more mobile armchair than it is a deeply engineered car. That's harsh, because the R-Class would be a fabulous car to crash in, assuming you had to, because there's no shortage of engineering in it.
If it's short on anything, it's product planning. They can call it an SUV all they like, but it's not. It's better, but it's still, at heart, a very big, very thirsty machine that doesn't really know what it is.
Price base / as tested N/A
Engine 5.0L V8
Gearbox Seven-speed automatic
Power 382hp @ 4,000rpm
Torque 530Nm @ 4,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 14L/100km