Mercedes’ R-class a masterful, mysterious blend of auto styles |

Mercedes’ R-class a masterful, mysterious blend of auto styles

eagle county correspondent
Includes: 268-horsepower V6, seven-speed automatic transmission, permanent four-wheel drive, three rows of individual seating for six, harmon-kardon Logic7 sound system with six-CD changer, heated rear and front seats, Airmatic air suspension and speed sensitive steering, panorama roof, two-zone climate control system, auxiliary iPod sound input in glove box

Take the swooping largess of an equally tough-to-categorize vehicle such as the Chrysler Pacifica and you start to get the idea. Is this the world’s most luxurious all-wheel-drive minivan? Or is it a variation on the SUV theme that has been blessed with extra style and substance galore?

You got me. Whatever it is, exactly, the R350 (powered by a 3.5 liter V6; the 500 model, sporting a V8, is also available) is large and in charge, with its substantive flanks backed up by 268 horsepower, plus a smooth and almost sporty ride. The vehicle’s got loads of good looks and interior finishings – all of which accentuate Mercedes-Benz’s best attributes.

And while it’s tough to put a finger on what the R-class is, exactly, somebody’s going to love the mix of styles and standards. If you want to haul four people in total comfort and squeeze in a couple extra for short-distance luxury, the R350 will do it. Better yet, you and your passengers will enjoy heated leather seats in front and back, two multi-zone heating and air conditioning systems and an exceptionally sweet audio system.

Looks are indeed the R350’s most cunning feature. Long and swept out, that familiar bubbly bump of standard minivan shape is reinterpreted with poise and grace. A long, pointy nose delivers shockingly good style up front with massive elliptical headlamps, fog lamps and a mesh-lined air vent build into the aggressively sharpened lower lip. The large, silver MB emblem is also mesh-backed for more radiator airflow. 10-spoke alloy wheels ride on wheel well-filling 18-inch Michelin all-seasons and, during the course of our mostly dry-roaded test, kept things well-connected to the ground.

The long swoop of the body line stretches from under the side mirrors and up to the rear door handles, giving a look of graceful motion. Those huge doors, especially in the back, mean easy access for both you and your passengers; they open to reveal some of the most spacious second-row seating I’ve ever experienced. They also give the R350 an authoritative sense of bulk, good or bad. Chrome trim to the window frames is another aesthetic highlight.

In the back, dark, dark rear and back-third windows may have some confusing the R350 with a hearse – I didn’t see it that way but I’ve heard some comments to that effect – and those back windows curve sharply, leaving a roof with projects out a bit, ending with an aerodynamic overhang. The liftgate, which secures in place with an electronic catch, is bookended by large elliptical brakelights. Chrome dual exhaust ports add a touch of cool.

Try out the back seats first and you’ll thrill to the executive class experience, with yards (so it seems) of leg room in the multi-adjustable second-row seating. The seating’s universally leather, of course; back passengers will also appreciate the complete set of audio and air flow controls situated behind the center console. There’s even a dual set of 12-volt outlets for laptops or other power needs.

Gaze upwards through the two-piece, cabin-length panorama sunroofs – the front one slides open to reveal a roof opening roughly the size of a kiddie pool. Or turn around and say hi to third-row guests enjoying the fold-flat jump seats with pop-up headrests. Whatever you do in the back, you’ll love the amazing ease of entry and exit from the back.

Up-front quarters are equally satisfying. With a flourish of hardwood on the wheel, doors, center stack and column and an abundance of chrome, it’s a very sweet look. A built-in bottle opener separating two deep cupholders does speak to the R350’s versatility and utility; multiple pop-up drawers in the center column will help store your goods.

Dual chrome-rimmed instruments are attractively austere; it takes a bit of fiddling to learn how to use the Mercedes-specific electronic column shifter (shift up for reverse, down for drive and press the button in to put it in park) but it’s easy once you get the hang of it.

There’s a load of big harmon/kardon Logic7 sound with a six-CD changer located in the glove box and the terribly James Bond-worthy single CD slot located underneath the fold-out entertainment center screen.

We got excellent heating and cooling from the just a little-too-plasticky dials that controlled the air system.

Seating was good and comfortable and warmed quickly with three-position seat heaters; the large, leather-wrapped steering wheel felt good and offered great handling input.

Drivers can select both sport and comfort shock setting and also use the electronic air ride height feature to give the machine just a little extra ground clearance.

The large size does make parking for first-timers a little challenging but you’ll get used to the dynamics after a while; with plenty of oomph under the hood, power is good and handling seemed generally pleasant and precise.

As we say, you’ll have to be the judge on what the R350 is, exactly; all we know is that it’s pretty cool, whatever it is that it’s trying to be.

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