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One of the more oddball vehicles Mercedes-Benz has ever built was seriously impressive for the first 400 miles. Then we got to Belfast, two occupants became six and it all went pear-shaped. Or at least some of our modest amount of soft-bag luggage did, as we tried to stuff it into non-existent spaces.

Which just goes to show that even in the long wheelbase version of what Stuttgart says is the most innovative and cavernous car it has ever produced, you still can’t have everything.

Even so, we – a driver and five passengers – were surprised that in one respect Merc’s new R-Class doesn’t work quite as we had hoped. We completed the final 100-mile leg to our hire cruiser on Northern Ireland’s beautiful Lough Erne with a quarter of our long weekend’s luggage perched on knees or shoved between the R-Class’s luxurious three rows of two-abreast leather seats.

Even at 5.16 metres in length, when all six seats are occupied there really is not enough room behind the rear seats for the amount of luggage six people could reasonably expect to take on even a two- or three-night break. We became adept at building a one-bag deep wall behind the back seats then slamming the tailgate shut before it could all fall over.

This reflects Mercedes-Benz’s priorities with the
R-Class. It insists that in terms of styling and capabilities it is a “groundbreaking” new breed of car – in its own terms a uniquely upmarket “part sports saloon, part estate car and part MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle), with a touch of SUV (sports utility vehicle)”. It claims that, collectively, these attributes – permanent four-wheel-drive included – warrant the R-Class being described as the first “Sports Grand Tourer”. It is implicit in these claims, however, that there have to be compromises.

At first the description appears to hold water. The R-Class looks dramatically sleek, imposing, sporting – a planet removed from conventional MPVs – and very, very long. And it is. There are few vehicles in which you are more grateful for what carmakers call a rear-bumper proximity warning system.

The R-class comes in three levels of specification and two wheelbases, although, given the emphasis on space utilisation, I don’t understand why Mercedes even bothers with the shorter one. There is a choice of three engines: 221bhp 3l turbo­diesel; 268bhp 3.5l V6 petrol; and, temporarily, a lunking 302bhp 5l V8 petrol unit, which will be replaced next year by a more efficient V8 of 5.5l with another 80bhp. As an exercise in sheer pointlessness, Mercedes also intends to introduce a 500bhp V8 version by AMG, its in-house go-faster division.

In a car such as this I can see no point in opting for
anything but the diesel.
Forget the horsepower figures. Real-world, stop-start, punch-between-bends performance is related much more closely to torque than horsepower. The R320L Cdi SE has a massive 376lb ft between 1,600 and 2,800rpm – just where you need it for effortless pick-up. It won’t break any speed records – maximum is about 130mph and 0-60mph takes nine seconds but the figures belie the effortless ease with which it swallows miles silently and smoothly. It is helped to a great extent by the R-Class’s gearbox, a seven-speed automatic, the driver control of which is an object lesson for pretty well any vehicle except out-and-out sports cars. There is a small lever on the right side of the steering wheel. Push up for forward; down for reverse; press to park, when it automatically applies the parking brake and puts the vehicle in neutral.

Mercedes could have taken a similar route to the Land Rover Discovery by putting three seats in the middle row of the vehicle, plus two at the back. In that way, three couples could travel and solve the luggage problem by lowering one rear seat for extra capacity. Instead, it has opted to let six adults travel in leather-upholstered comfort, even in the third row of seats, which in many MPVs is an afterthought. It should be said that if only four are travelling, the picture changes completely. With the third row of seats folded virtually into the floor there is luggage room enough for a six-month holiday.

If things can get squashed for your luggage, the experience for the driver is very, very good. The driving position is elevated and commanding. And the SUV-derived suspension is beefy enough to fend off unwanted pitch and roll. In that respect, as a “crossover” vehicle between large estate and SUV, the R-Class is altogether more successful than similar concepts engineered from the opposite direction – estate cars modified to a more elevated ride height.

One not-so-minor downside is the worst satellite navigation system I have come across since the prototypes of the 1980s. Its commands were slow, imprecise and even occasionally and infuriatingly retrospective. Its cost is buried within “our” car’s UK price of £42,970 but is doubtless well into four figures. Give me Trafficmaster’s Smartnav system anyday, at £700 plus a small subscription.

You press one button, tell an operator where you want to go and the operator downloads the route as conventional, turn-by-turn satnav guidance. Its crowning glory, if things don’t work out, is that you have a live operator, not a mute, sadistic keypad, to moan at.


More reviews at www.ft.com/testdrive

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