2011 Mercedes R350 Review

Refreshed to bolster slumping sales, the 2011 R-Class continues to be a blemish on the shining tri-pointed star

2011 Mercedes R350 Review
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The R-Class is old. Even with the facelift, 2011 marks its seventh year of production with only a few detail changes since its ‘05 intro. It’s a stark reminder of how far Mercedes-Benz had fallen from its king-maker days, and how far out of the hole the company’s pulled itself recently.

FAST FACTS

1. A 268-hp 3.5L gasoline V6 gets 15/19-mpg and is priced from $50,240.

2. A BlueTec Diesel model makes 210-hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, gets 18/24-mpg and costs $51,740.

3. Seating for 6 is standard, with an optional second-row bench offering room for 7.

4. Total cargo room is an expansive 85 cu-ft.

Even when new, the R never found its feet. Its initial full-year sales only hit 18,000 units in the U.S., and have struggled to hit one-sixth that number in the last two years. Given its miniscule take rate, you have to wonder why ‘Benz didn’t just pull the plug completely? Obviously, the decision was made to bring the R-Class into the present, if only so it wouldn’t stick out so badly in family pictures.

RESTYLED BUT NOT REINVENTED

Gone is the gaping-wide catfish maw, replaced by a more upright, squared-off schnoz. The alien-abduction headlights are replaced by angular ones that look vaguely Korean. The whole vibe mixes GLK with GMC Terrain. New wheel designs, side mirrors, rear bumper, LED taillights and restyled exhaust cutouts try in vain to modernize the overall package. From the side or rear, it’s unmistakably R. Since Mercedes couldn’t give the originals away, that doesn’t bode well.

Inside, Mercedes-Benz barely tried to spruce things up. It’s still the same ML-derived cabin as before. Anyone who’s driven any of the next-generation products – C-, E-, and CLS-class – will be shocked at the dated electronics and controls. The interior is swathed in big black plastics with only a few strips of wood thrown on the center console and dash to liven it up. 

The R does its best impression of a leather-lined Grand Caravan with room for six standard – a seventh seat in the middle of the second row is optional. The Mercedes Minivan nickname is a little unfair, but folding the three rows of seat does leave an eight-foot-long load area. All in, there’s 85 cu-ft of cargo storage with a nice, flat load surface for bulky items. That space translates to a comfortable cabin, although a lack of third-row legroom means it’s for munchkins only.

Plus, need we point out that it doesn’t have sliding second row doors. Mercedes initially used this to help separate the car from Japanese and American minivans, but the reality is, when it comes to moving people, those side-sliders are about as handy an invention as Rudolf Diesel’s engine.

As with most Mercedes-Benz products, the list of basic equipment is pretty sparse – something that stands-out that much more when you’re paying $50,000. Comfort and convenience items like heated seats, a rear-view camera, parking sensors, a full-length moon roof and a power liftgate are all expensive options. Most can be found in the $4,000 Premium Package, a default choice for anyone hauling kids.

There are plenty of electronic safety nets between you and a big crash, with eight standard airbags, ABS, traction and stability control, and towing assist. Corners were still cut is this department, however, as some of the new Benz safety features like Attention Assist and Lane Keeping Assist are absent.

FUEL-EFFICIENT DIESEL THE MORE ATTRACTIVE OPTION

Mechanically, little has changed for 2011, meaning a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter gasoline V6 in the base R350, and a 210-horsepower 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 in the BlueTec model. Given the minimal difference in MSRP between the two ($50,240 vs. $51,740), the latter’s 400 lb-ft of torque and similar 8.2-second 0-60 mph run (vs. 8 sec. flat) give it the edge in desirability. The diesel obviously trounces its sibling in the fuel economy stakes too, offering 18-mpg in the city and 24-mpg on the highway compared to 15/19 for the base V6.

Both share the same seven-speed automatic transmission and 4MATIC full-time all-wheel drive, but don’t expect the R to tackle anything more demanding than the weekly cottage run: its wheelbase is too long and ground clearance too small. The standard 19-inch wheels come with 255/50 section all-season run-flats, which are not the last word in performance either.

LUCKY FOR MERCEDES, COMPETITORS ARE FEW

What the R does do well is cruise. High-speed, straight-line road trips are its forte. The over-light steering, a real lack of feedback through any controls, and a relatively hushed cabin would be a boon on family vacations. It could even tow a small boat or camper along behind thanks to its integrated Class II hitch.

Competitors? Not many with a premium badge, which is something Mercedes has to bank on. The Ford Flex Titanium and Lincoln MKT offer similar size and superior performance, but they face similar criticism to the R’s polarizing exterior design. There are also the traditional minivan options from Chrysler (yes, really!), Honda and Toyota, but chances are any R-Class customers have a healthy stigma against them. If expansive load lugging isn’t top of mind, the new M-B E350 Wagon is only slightly more expensive than a mildly optioned R350 BlueTec.

THE VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz will likely still move a steady 3,000 of these a year, mainly to current customers whose leases on the originals are coming due. Anyone else vaguely interested in an R-class should at least do their due diligence at a Lincoln dealer first...

LOVE IT
  • Torque-rich turbo-diesel engine
  • Front end less likely to scare small children
  • Hides its size well – eight-foot loads fit fine
LEAVE IT
  • Not enough improvements inside
  • Unrewarding to drive
  • Gets very expensive very quickly

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2010 Mercedes ML350 BlueTEC Review
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