From Vision to Reality
Lou Ann Hammond, Thu, 28 Jul 2005 08:00:00 PDT
Carmel, Monterey County, CA - Quality, Dr. Eckhard Cordes said that "quality will be the core and focus of all my efforts. We know that only satisfied customers can ensure the future of a brand." He then unveiled the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class at the 2005 North American International Auto Show. In Carmel, Paul Halata, Presidentand CEO, Mercedes-Benz USA, reiterated that feeling.
Mercedes is betting on this car to bring back its heritage of quality. To own a Mercedes meant you had made it. Mercedes was a niche market that you aspired to own. But Mercedes, like all other companies, had to grow and that meant they had to expand their line-up. It's not easy to go from being a niche company to a company that offers entry level product without complications. There's not a company that has done it without a hit to their quality standing. Mercedes has been no exception.
I drove the R-Class in Carmel Valley and got home to find the Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG station wagon in my driveway. Dubbed the Grand Sports Tourer by Mercedes, it is longer than a Cadillac Escalade by five inches, but not nearly as tall as the Escalade. The E55 AMG station wagon is shorter than the Grand Sports Tourer. It is almost as if Mercedes-Benz created a gentrified combination of the Escalade and the E55 station wagon. The Baby Bear of luxury wagons. Not too big, not too small, but just right. The R-Class seating is more than a lavish mini-van, more than a Chrysler PT Cruiser on steroids. The R-Class is a distinctively styled vehicle designed for a specific market.
The R-Class comes in two models; the R350 and R500. The R350 is a V-6 that comes with a 3.5-liter, 24-valve and makes 268 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 258 foot-pounds of torque between 2,400-5,000 rpm. The R500 is a V-8, 5-liter, 24-valve that produces 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 foot-pounds of torque between 2,700-4,750 rpm. Both engines are linked to seven-speed automatic transmissions that can be shifted manually by tiptronic on the backside of the steering wheel, if so desired. The engine automatically overrides when you get to the red line. The powertrains for both vehicles are made in Unterturkheim, Berlin, and AMG GmbH in Affalterbach.
Both models are front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five door vehicles that seats six adults and holds 21.3 gallons of premium unleaded gasoline. According to Mercedes-Benz the reason a new owner will have to pay $2,000 extra on a gas guzzler tax is because the V-6, at 4,765 pounds, gets 18/city and 22/hwy, while the V-8, at 4,845 pounds, gets 17/city and 20/hwy. The R is low to the ground; It rides on standard 17-inch wheels on the V-6, or 18-inchers on the V-8. Optional equipment includes 19-inch wheels and an alternate set of 18s.
The R-Class was first introduced as a Vision-R concept at last year's Paris auto show, making it the 12th model for Mercedes-Benz. It's not easy to make a long vehicle look elegant, but Steve Mattin worked miracles on the exterior of the R-Class. Mattin was named "Designer of the Year" by the British motoring magazine Autocar about ten years ago. During Mattin's eighteen years as a designer with Mercedes-Benz he worked on the A-Class, the S-Class, the C-Class sports coup, the SL and the M-Class. Like other designers who do a great job, Mattin has since been hired away to Volvo.
The front hood starts low in the front and scoops all the way up, creating a strong line between the roof pillars and the front bumper. The windshield is raked to 61.5 degrees, giving the illusion of an even longer hood. The bold accent line on the profile follows the length of the body, eluding to dynamic motion. The headlights not only add space because of their placement, they allow for a beam to shoot out when you are turning at a 90 degree angle. Just like all the light trucks and coupes in the Mercedes family, the star is in the grille. The rear has a large cargo door and dual exhaust pipes. If you've got an extra $3,290 opt for the panoramic roof that opens for the 1st row and last, spend it. During the day, we kept the roof closed, but at night we were star-watching from all rows.
The interior has enough space for six adults and all their gear. All seats are buckets, so if you're a parent you no longer hear the "Mom, he's touching me". They haven't figured out a way to get rid of the "Mom, he's looking at me" or "Mom, he's saying my name" yet. This is probably the first time there have been this many cupholders in a German car; twelve in all. In fact, the front console cupholder can be taken out and used as a bottle opener. Mercedes refers to the interior as classes of flying; you have the cockpit, 1st class (as the 2nd row) and business class (the 3rd row). Just like in economy class, in the third row you don't get to watch a DVD in the back of the headseat, while you can do that in the second row.
Don't feel slighted, though, when it comes to safety. The window curtain air gab covers all three rows of seats. There is no open window in the last seat. It would have been nice to at least have a latch on the third window to open for air. The third row is large enough for actual adults, remember this vehicle is longer than a Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes has put all that extra room in the third seat. You won't have as much cargo room, but adults will enjoy sitting in the back a whole lot more. There is also a climate-control system that allows you to simultaneously set three temperatures for three separate rows within the passenger cabin. When you buy the R-Class ask your dealer to set the liftgate to your height.
The R-Class is not just about having space, it's about living richly. Mercedes also has the Chrysler stow-n-go, the minivan I consider the best on the road today. Chrysler understood the difference between having space and utilizing space when they created the Town and Country. They understood the audience of active adults with active children. The R-Class is for the active adults that live large and live elegantly.
The ride and drive in the R-Class is surprisingly pleasant. The Cadillac Escalade is brutish and you feel the whole vehicle, including the top-heaviness of it as you go around a corner. Even the E55 AMG didn't feel as nimble going around the curves as the R-Class. The biggest surprise was in the gas pedal. I've gotten used to driving the 5-geared Mercedes and there is a distinct lag from the time you mash the pedal with your foot till the car moves. In the R-Class there are seven gears taking this lag away. Mercedes is also going from 3-valves to 4-valves in their engines. The V-6 already has it in the SLK, M-Class and E-Class. The new V-8 4-valve is seen in the S-Class and will be in all Mercedes shortly. An optional air suspension gives the R-Class a smoother ride.
In addition to the new Mercedes M-Class and R-Class now in production, the Vance, AL, plant is expected to add a 7-seat M-Class. A back-up camera in the NAV system will be available next year. In 2007 an AMG 4Matic that will get 495 horsepower will be available. Expect it to cost an additional $20K easily. According to Mercedes' Ron Mueller, other luxury automakers plan to enter the sports tourer segment, which he says will double or triple in the next five years. Mercedes is looking forward to the oil refineries meeting their obligation to have low-sulfur in 2006, so that they can bring more diesels to the United States. The Vance plant is building a super-low-sulfur diesel fuel in the diesel-powered R320 models that will be sold in Europe. They cannot sell them here yet.
Bill Taylor, President, CEO MBUSI, is proud of the Vance plant, "It's okay to have a problem, it's not okay to have a problem and not fix it." The Alabama plant went from the worst Mercedes-Benz plant in quality to number one seven years later. Last year the 4,000 "team members" won the internal quality award in all Daimler Chrysler Mercedes-Benz for best plant quality. Taylor credits this with the plants less than 1 percent attrition and 99 percent attendance. Government incentives included $253 million for the original plant, estimated at $3.5 billion; $1 billion for the plant itself and $2.5 in research and development. Another $119 million in government incentives was given towards the $600 million expansion. Taylor, who likes to be referred to as a team member not President, says that before starting at MBUSI each employee gives 57 hours of their time in testing, communication skills and problem solving (not automotive related) to insure that they can be a part of the team.
Mercedes is not just comparing the R-Class to the Escalade because of its size, Mercedes tied Cadillac for fifth place among automotive brands in the Initial Quality Study this year. Mercedes had ranked 10th in 2004 and 15th in 2003. The R-Class is made in America, by Americans for Americans; a shorter version will be shipped from America to Europe for sale.
The competitors for the R-Class are Audi, Lexus, BMW, Cadillac and Lincoln. Mercedes expects the Socialite empty nester between the ages of 40-54, the successful entrepreneur as a buyer. The R-Class goes on sale in the United States this fall as a 2006 model. Base pricing for the R350 is $48,775 and $56,275 on the R500, including a $775 destination charge. Adding all options to my favorite R-Class, the R500, will bring it up to almost $70,000. The R-Class is a beautiful vehicle, inside and out. It will add class to the Mercedes lineup. The type of class that says you have arrived.