According to the crystal-ball gazers at Mercedes, the R-Class is that Holy Grail of modern automotive marketing, a new class of vehicle. A three-way blend of people carrier, 4x4 and luxury car, it certainly achieves the distinction of being different - there's nothing else like it on the market. But newness alone does not a successful product make; people have to want to buy it, too.
Sales of the R-Class have reportedly been slow, even in the US market for which it was designed. But new ideas can take a while to catch on. When Renault launched its Espace, the first-ever people carrier, in 1984, that didn't exactly fly out of the showrooms either. But the French carmaker has shifted more than a million of them since.
Mercedes calls its R320 CDI a Grand Sports Tourer, and it's grand alright. The long-wheelbase version tested is more than five metres from stem to stern and two metres from port to starboard and weighs a maritime 2.3 tonnes. Attempts to disguise its mass with what the presspack optimistically calls 'beguiling coupe styling' might go over well in Mallsville, USA, but it doesn't look great here in Blighty. Like Liberace in his corset, bulk lost round the waist is redistributed at either end, and it looks even larger than the M-Class off-roader whose platform it borrows. Its size can make you feel like an eco-terrorist, unless it's stuffed to the gunwales with people and cargo.
Leave harbour and take to the high seas, however, and the R-Class quickly makes more sense. The combination of seven-speed (yes, seven) autobox and quiet, punchy V6 turbodiesel engine makes for a laid-back motorway cruise. The cabin is first-class all the way, with upholstery that wouldn't disgrace a stateroom on the Queen Mary 2 and more leg, arm and headroom than occupants of Merc's S-Class mega-saloon would know what to do with. It just needs a steward to serve pink gin when the sun is over the yard-arm.
At nearly £53,000 as tested, travelling R-Class is not for the faint of wallet. That includes £10,000 of extras - like SatNav, seatback DVD, xenon headlamps, climate control and air suspension. Best was the 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo (£500). This sounds so good you forget that Janis Joplin didn't mean it when she sang 'Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?'.
So it's Grand, and a Tourer par excellence. But is it Sporting? Not really. Mercedes' chassis engineers have produced a stable and reassuring vehicle with a comfy ride. But there's no steering feel to speak of, and although it corners capably if pushed, it doesn't reward the driver for doing so. We didn't have the chance to try out the four-wheel drive off-road - but then, who would?
The R320 CDI is a technological - if not ecological - tour de force, easy to use and live with. But it's a lot of money for a car whose looks only mother could love, however different it may be.
Mercedes-Benz R320 CDI Sport
Max power: 224 bhp
Max torque: 376 lb ft
Max speed: 134 mph
0-62 mph: 8.8 sec
Fuel consumption: 30 mpg
CO2 emissions: 253 g/km
- BMW 535d SE Touring: £39,815
Less space inside but more of everything else. Looks better, drives better, more city-friendly.
- Renault Espace 3.5 Initiale £35,545
The original MPV, updated. Plush seven-seater lacking Merc's badge appeal; thirsty too.