CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. On Ocean Avenue in Carmel-By-The-Sea , that exclusive seaside enclave on California's Monterey Peninsula where the super-rich denizens drive mega-bucks cars with labels like Bentley, Aston Martin and Ferrari, we notice that more than a few of the sidewalk shoppers pay unusual attention to our vehicle with their heads turning and fingers pointing as we roll by.
What these spectators observe is a Mercedes which resembles no other vehicle in the extensive Benz fleet. It's large, stretching longer than the biggest full-size sedan and equally wide. It's bold in style, with a windswept face where the prow and windshield forge a raked plane sweeping up from front fascia and over a roll-top roofline.
It has lots of doors. There's a pair of portals on each flank below what looks like one extremely long and narrow window stretching from the windshield clear back to the tail. Also, a top-hinged liftgate at the rear swings high for access into the cargo bay.
The profile vaguely resembles one of those big American mid-century station wagons, although the stance of this contemporary car seems to hunker on the pavement like a sports car and the beltline atop side doors rises like the raked face from a low point at the windshield to a high point in the rear corner. Inside, there are three tiers of seats with a pair of individual buckets set in rows one and two and three.
This is a first-class cabin, as appropriate for a Mercedes, with leather covering seats and appointments of the quality and caliber of a deluxe full-size luxury car. And overhead there's the optional panoramic sunroof with two large glass panels consuming most of the ceiling space stretching front to rear above the cabin. The overriding concept behind this design seems to merge attributes of the station wagon, a minivan and sport utility vehicle with a luxury-lined limousine.
Germany's Mercedes-Benz constructs this vehicle at its USA assembly plant in Vance, Ala., as a 2009 model under the R Class label. Consider it a crossover vehicle -- the platform comes from the mid-size M Class of crossover utility vehicles and the body resembles either a low-slammed station wagon or an elongated SUV but the function combines traits of the wagon, sport-ute and limo-like sedan. Mercedes even coined a new category for the R Class wagon, Sport Tourer.
The sport end of the title stems from performance characteristics and the driving manners of a tautly-tuned sports sedan. The tourer title comes from the European tradition of calling a wagon-type vehicle the touring model. End result becomes a vehicle with practical attributes of a wagon but the fun-to-drive nature of a sports sedan and the refined cabin of a Mercedes big-class luxury car.
The 2009 R350 wagon drives and rides like a plush luxury Mercedes sedan and feels as comfortable. Yet it also provides a surprising amount of cargo space in the back bay and can carry up to six people in first-class comfort in a vehicle with the sticky tire traction of a pavement-hugging all-wheel-drive (AWD) sport-ute. Nomenclature for all Mercedes vehicles consists of alphanumeric designations, with the class size defined by alphabetical letters and the engine volume expressed in liters and translated into three digits.
Thus, the R350 takes its name from the R Class of six-seat stretched wagons and its 3.5-liter V6 engine turns into the numbers 350. The V6 engine, with dual cams on top and variable valve timing, produces 268 hp at 6000 rpm plus 258 lb-ft of torque peaking between 2400 and 5000 rpm. Transmission is the impressive Mercedes TouchShift automatic, a seven-speed automatic transmission used in many different Mercedes vehicles.
The transmission operates with a stubby stalk protruding from the right side of the steering column. To select a gear, you raise the stalk one notch for reverse, lower it one click down for drive or depress a button on the stalk's cap to park.
While driving, you may leave the stalk in full automatic mode or play the TouchShift buttons, positioned on the back side of the steering wheel's cross bar, to switch gears. To-and-fro movements of the TouchShift buttons step up or down the gear ladder one notch at a time with the control of a manual stick. The full-time 4Matic AWD device in the R350 uses three open differentials, front, rear and center.
The center differential controls wheel speed up front and enables the forward rollers to turn at a faster rate than the rear ones during turning maneuvers. Likewise, the fore and aft differentials allow outboard wheels to spin faster than inboard wheels in a curve. Then Mercedes adds a four-wheel adaptation of the electronic traction control system dubbed 4ETS. Wheel sensors determine when a single wheel may slip on a slick surface and the device then brakes the slipping wheel and transfers engine torque to the other wheels to maintain forward progress.
There are additional electronic devices aboard the R350 to stabilize all forward movement and tire traction.
Sensors in the suspension system determine vehicular payload, speed and road conditions, and they can adjust dampers on shock absorbers to smooth out or firm up the ride quality. Still other devices measure wheel speed and lateral acceleration and can brake an individual wheel to correct potential skidding or spinning of the car.
Also on tap is the alphabet soup of computerized vehicle controls ,anti-lock brake system (ABS) with brake assist plus (BAP) and electronic stability control (ESP). And Mercedes provides roll-over sensors, curtain-style air bags for all rows of seats, and a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
Optional equipment includes a rear seat video entertainment system, Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system with six-disc CD changer, triple-zone interior climate controls, the panorama glass sunroof with pop-out rear-quarter windows, a power liftgate, Keyless Go entry device, Parktronic distance sensors, bi-xenon curve-illuminating headlamps, and a DVD-based navigation system plus satellite radio service. And the bottom line for the 2009 R350: $46,450.