The poor R350 has been misunderstood and unloved in the marketplace for years. While crossovers' popularity is booming, the Mercedes-Benz entry has floundered. Strange.
To try to right this, for 2011 Mercedes-Benz's designers have given it a face lift. From the windshield forward it's all new, including the hood, fenders, radiator grille, headlamps and bumper. Other little changes, such as larger exterior mirror housings and a new lower rear fascia make it a formal reintroduction of the car.
The R350 looks like a minivan at first glance, with its long, inclined windshield and capacious shape, but it's not. See—no sliding doors! True, it can hold six people in great comfort (especially in the front and middle rows), and even seven if you order the three-passenger second-row seat. There are 85 generous feet of cargo space when you fold down all of the back seats.
From the driver's seat, The R350 feels like a tall E Class sedan—and that's good. Every styling cue transmits "Mercedes" to your mind, from the sensuous curve of the dash to the genuine burl walnut trim to the chrome three-pointed star in the center of the steering wheel. The instrument cluster is redone for 2011, with new, easier-to-read dials and needles.
I took my R350 on a Sunday Drive with the Mercedes-Benz Owners Club. The group drove a wide assortment of Mercedes vehicles from the last 50 years. Numerous fellow drivers came over to check out the new R350. Although one said with a chuckle that it looked like a hearse, overall folks were impressed by the spaciousness and obvious utility of the car, and thought that the new nose was an improvement.
You can equip your R350 with a 3.5-liter gasoline model or a 3.0-liter turbodiesel, called BlueTEC. My Steel Gray test car had the latter. Both come with a seven-speed automatic. Mercedes-Benzes have featured Diesel engines for decades, and now you can buy them in all 50 states again.
Diesels have better fuel economy than gasoline models. The EPA rates the 5,000-pound BlueTEC at 18 City, 24 Highway and the gas version at 14/19. I earned a commendable 24.5 mpg over my test week, which included a lot of freeway driving.
Thanks to new technology, BlueTEC engines are as clean as gasoline ones now. Mercedes-Benz engineers have effectively reduced emissions by injecting AdBlue®, a non-toxic, aqueous urea solution, into the exhaust gas stream. This releases ammonia, which breaks down up to 80 percent of the nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrogen and water in the downstream catalytic converter. EPA Green Vehicle numbers aren't available yet.
The R350 is no sports car, and on the narrow winding Napa and Sonoma area roads, my son David got a brief touch of motion sickness. Handling, though, is direct and natural for the driver. The R hugs the road well for a large, tall car.
The BlueTEC can run zero to 60 in just 8.6 seconds—not much slower than the gas engine's 8.0. Although it boasts just 210 horsepower (compared to the gas engine's 268) it has 400 lb.-ft. of torque—at just 1,600 to 2,400 rpm. The Diesel fuel smell is virtually nonexistent at the pump and you can barely hear the engine. And, the week I tested the car Diesel fuel was 2 cents cheaper than regular at my local Chevron.
My test car had MB-Tex on the seats, not genuine leather. However, the R350 comes well equipped with the usual things you expect, and you can add lots more. The base R350 BlueTEC starts at $52,615, including shipping, but mine hit $64,860 with many extras. Who wouldn't want the excellent harman/kardon LOGIC7 surround-sound system? Or the rear-view camera or power front seats with memory (a unique fan-shaped 3-choice control sits on the left side of the lower seat cushion).
My tester featured a sensuous wood and leather steering wheel and the panoramic sunroof, which boasts a two-part retractable sunshade and covers nearly the entire roof. My test car also had blind Spot assist. A yellow triangle blinks in your exterior mirrors to warn you that someone's in the blind spots alongside the car. If you put on your turn signal when there's someone there it blinks much more vigorously.
Mercedes-Benz has studied safety for generations, and this latest car features a wide range of active and passive safety features. These include eight airbags, a steel-reinforced cabin with front and rear crumple zones, and PRE-SAFE and POST-SAFE. These high-tech electronic features prepare your car for a crash if the system senses one is coming.
If you're shopping luxury crossovers, make sure you take a good look at Mercedes-Benz's reworked R Class before you sign anything—you won't be the first person to be surprised.