The Mercedes R Class, introduced to North America in late 2005 as a 2006 model, was a fabulously comfortable and capable vehicle. It was well suited to the wide open spaces of the American road and could accommodate 6, and later, 7 passengers with ease. Unfortunately, it had an ongoing identity crisis. MBUSA could never figure out how to market their new luxury people-mover. After initial sales successes upon its introduction, it slipped through the marketing cracks in an ever growing field of SUVs and crossovers. Sales declined each year after its introduction. It received a mild exterior ‘facelift’ in 2011 with changes to the front and rear bumpers and lights. It was discontinued after the 2012 model year. For those who own them, the Mercedes R class might be the perfect vehicle. The fact that it doesn’t fit nicely into an automotive industry category doesn’t bother them one bit. R class owners are an enthusiastic bunch, like keepers of a secret nobody else is in on. In this article we’ll explain the evolution of the Mercedes R class and changes through the production years. We’ve also included a sales chart by year as reported by MBUSA at the very end of this article.
The R Class is the production version of the Mercedes Vision GST (Grand Sports Tourer) Concept Car that was unveiled at the 2002 Detroit International Auto Show. At this show, Mercedes conveyed the fact that they would be introducing an all new vehicle class, the R class, based on the Vision GST concept. As usual, the concept had some ‘aspirational’ features that didn’t make it to the production model, most notably, the rear opening (suicide) doors for the second row.
The R class is powered by the same basic drive train as the M class SUV of the same period (3.5 liter V6, or diesel with 7 speed automatic transmission) and it’s built on a similar uni-body platform, but the dimensions of the R class are completely different than the M class mid-sized SUV. The R class’ 126.6 inch wheelbase is nearly a foot longer than the M class and it’s 5 inches longer than the GL class SUV. The Mercedes R class is 6.3 inches lower than the M class, and 2.3 inches wider. Looking at total length, the R class is almost 15 inches longer than the M class, it’s even longer than a Cadillac Escalade.
When people look at the Mercedes R class, they’re not sure what to make of it. Is it an SUV, crossover, mini van, wagon? It’s been called all of those things. Upon introduction Mercedes claimed the R class “combined the advantages of familiar vehicle categories such as sport saloons, estates, MPVs and SUVs into a new, independent vehicle – the Grand Sports Tourer.”
If you go back and read the first articles about the R class in car magazines you’ll find that some automotive journalists called it a wagon, because it sits lower than an SUV and has four doors and three rows of seating. Some wanted to call it a mini van because of the two rear rows of seats with a walk through between them, like a mini van, but it doesn’t have sliding doors. Others wanted to call it an SUV because of its capable all-wheel drive system and room for people and cargo.
This is the R class identity crisis, no one knew what to call it and therefore, new car buyers weren’t sure if they needed it because they weren’t sure exactly what it was. At the time, the Chrysler Pacifica and Cadillac SRX were the only other similar vehicles on the market, in this new, SUV / Cross Over / Mini Van / Wagon thingy segment.
2006 R Class
In late 2005 the R class started showing up at Mercedes dealerships as a 2006 model. Two models were initially available for the 2006 model year, the R 350 and R 500. The 350 was powered by the same 268 HP V6 found in the E and M class. The R 500 was equipped with the 302 HP V8 found in the S class which was also available for the M and E class. Both models came standard with Mercedes’ all wheel drive system, 4matic.
17″ wheels were standard on the R 350 while the R 500 came with a standard 18″ wheel. A 19″ AMG monoblock wheel was available on either model, included in the AMG Sport Package. Also included in the AMG sport Package were AMG designed front and rear bumpers (more aggressive looking) and chrome exhaust tips. There were no actual performance modifications as part of the AMG Sport Package, it was purely visual.
Some notable options available on either model:
- 3 Zone Climate Control (dual zone was standard)
- Power Tailgate
- KEYLESS GO
- PARKTRONIC parking sensor system
- Rear Seat Entertainment
- Airmatic Air Suspension system (installed on most R 500 models I’ve seen, very rare on a 350)
- Panorama Roof Package (one of the more sought after R class options, and widely available)
- Lighting Package (Bi-Xenon headlamps)
- Heating Package (front and rear, second row only, heated seats)
2007 Mercedes R Class
Mercedes added two additional R class models for 2007. In addition to the R 350 and R 500 there was the R 320 CDI (diesel) and R 63 AMG to choose from, all models were equipped with the 4matic all wheel drive system.
The R 320 CDI incorporated the same 3.0 liter direct rail turbo diesel V6 that was being used in the M class SUV and E class diesel sedan at the time. It only produced 215 HP, but it churned out 398 lb-ft of torque, compared to the regular R 350 gasoline V6 that produced 268 HP and 258 lb-ft. It was rated for 21 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. The CDI wasn’t offered for sale in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York or Vermont sue to these states’ stricter emissions standards.
Most interesting was Mercedes’ decision to allow AMG to massage the R class, producing the R 63 AMG. The R 63 used the 507 HP 6.2 liter, naturally aspirated V8 found in the rest of the ’63 AMG’ family of the period, yet it was the only AMG that didn’t incorporate the AMG specific We are unable to obtain actual, verified production figures directly from Mercedes-Benz or even sales figures from MBUSA. That said, members within AMG enthusiast community in the U.S. have tried to figure it out. By searching national DMV records, one source claims there are ‘about 100’ R 63 AMGs registered in the U.S. Another source claims 84 R 63 AMG cars were built for the U.S. market.
So few were ordered through Mercedes dealers, the model was discontinued, making it a one year only model. Obviously, nobody NEEDS a 6 person people mover that’s limited to a top speed of 155 mph, but when an R 63 appears on the market today, they usually fetch big money. There was a guy in the local Mercedes-Benz Club of America Section in Minneapolis I was a part of who had one. He purchased it used from one of the local dealerships who had ordered it from a well known family in the area who ordered a lot of new Mercedes, mostly AMGs over the years. He would show up to club events with it. It was Alpine Rain Metallic, a sort of very light blue metallic color. I got in his car one time to check it out and was very disappointed to find the odor of cigarettes inside… he was smoker and smoked regularly in the car.
2008 Mercedes R Class
For the 2008 model year Mercedes dropped the R 500 V8 and R 63 AMG, leaving only the 6 cylinder models, the 350 gas and 320 diesel. The R 350 was available as a rear wheel drive only vehicle for the first time for the 2008 model year, the 320 CDI was 4matic only. With sales numbers down, Mercedes knew their new R class had an identity problem. Mercedes moved away from a stand alone brochure for the R class and incorporated the R class into the “Mercedes SUV” brochure along with the M, GL and G class.
I got into the car business in the Spring of 2008, I worked at a Mercedes dealership in Minneapolis. A lot of 2006 R class models were coming off lease at the time, we always had a row of 10 or more R Classes that had qualified for the Mercedes Certified Pre Owned Program and I sold a lot of them. They were inexpensive as lightly used cars that summer, thanks to high gas prices, the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program and the 2008 economic crisis. The fact that there were so many good, used R classes available and the economic situation the country found itself in both hurt new R class sales.
Trying to keep up with the passenger capacity of mini-vans and larger SUVS, the 2008 model year R class saw the introduction of a ‘7th seat option.’
Instead of offering the console / storage area with cup holders for the middle seat passengers, or a basic ‘walk through’ between the seats (very handy if you don’t want to have to flip the seats forward to access the 3rd row) a 7th seating position was available. From what I’ve seen, the 7th seat option was very common in 2009 and later R classes… meaning, most of the 2009 and later examples I’ve seen, have it. It was not as common in 2008 models.
As you can see from the photo here, this 7th seat is more narrow than the other two and kind of crammed in there. I sat in one a few times and found it very uncomfortable and cramped. Maybe it works for small kids or a booster seat, but I think an R class is best left as a 6 seater. Additionally, 3rd row passengers can’t ‘walk through’ between the seats to access their seats. The 7th seat option requires one to flip one of the middle seats forward every time a passenger wants to access the 3rd row.
2009 Mercedes R Class
Just two R class models were available for the 2009 model year, and both were available with the 4matic all wheel drive system only. The R 350 soldiered forward unchanged under the hood, while the diesel variant was upgraded to the R 350 BlueTEC. The new BlueTEC diesel motor offered 210 HP with 398 ft-lb of torque and became 50 state legal. The new BlueTEC motor required the addition of a fuel additive called ‘Ad-Blue’ – also used in BMW, Volkswagen and a variety of other diesel cars from various European manufacturers. The Ad-Blue tank was installed where the spare tire used to live in the R class, under the floor, in the very back of the vehicle. As a result, 2009 and newer R class diesels were equipped with run-flat tires from the factory and did not carry a spare tire.
2009 was an important year for the interior electronic systems inside most Mercedes passenger vehicles. The COMAND controlled information / entertainment system got a serious upgrade. The new system was hard drive based. Systems like navigation, voice control and Bluetooth were greatly improved. This new electronic system is such an improvement, I would only suggest an R class from model year 2009 or newer, same goes for the M and GL classes and even the E and S classes.
2010 R class
By 2010 Mercedes was referring to the R class as a ‘cross over’ vehicle, but still, new R class sales were hard to come by. Like 2009, it was down to the R 350 and R 350 BlueTEC, all R classes were equipped with the 4matic all wheel drive system.
By 2010 19″ wheels were standard on both R class models, a 20″ 5 spoke AMG wheel was available with the ‘Sport Appearance Package’ which also incorporated heat absorbing blue tinted windows (windshield and front windows only) and dark-tinted tail lamps), kind of chincy for a ‘Sport Appearance Package’ from Mercedes-Benz. Most 2010 R classes were built with the Premium 1 Package which included such basics as Navigation, memory seats, power lift gate, rear view camera and a few other options. I say ‘most’ were built with the P1 Package, but it’s not out of the question that you could find one without it, chances are slim… you really want the P1 package on an R class. For 2010 the Premium 2 Package (P2 Pkg) included everything from the P1 Package and added the harmon/kardon LOGIC7 surround sound system and KEYLESS GO.
Through the life of the R class to this point there were usually about 10-12 exterior color options available. They changed a little over the years, but the 2010 color selection is pretty representative of what was available. A “Jade Green” color was available for the first couple of years of the R class, sort of a dark pine green metallic, a very rare color, dropped after 2008. As was typical of most Mercedes of the time… there was black, white and several grey / pewter / gold sorts of colors. As usual, metallics were more expensive.
2011 R Class
The 2011 R class received a ‘face-lift’ from Mercedes-Benz. The front end, lights, grille and lower fascia were updated to reflect the new styling apparent throughout the Mercedes line of the time. The rear tail lights were also updated and the R class saw its exhaust pipes integrated into the lower rear bumper, again, these same changes were seen across various other vehicles in the Mercedes line in 2011 and 2012. Some minor interior changes ocurred, such as the use of different head rests on the rear seats and a mild change to the instrument cluster.
The front grilles of most Mercedes models became more vertical, taking styling cues from the SLS AMG released this same year. Some also say this styling was, in part, due to tightening regulations in Europe regarding the potential injuries sustained by pedestrians if hit by a car. A sharp, pointy car might do more damage, so, make the front end of a car more vertical as not to slice someone in half? That was the thinking anyway, and it trickled down. LED daytime running lamps were also all the rage about this time, they too started appearing on most Mercedes models.
2012 R Class
A lot happened in 2012 across the Mercedes-Benz product line. This was the year Mercedes’ new direct injection 3.5 liter V6 offering up 302 HP along with 273 lb-ft torque replaced the 268 HP V6 that had been in use since the 2006 model year. It was installed in just about everything, including the all new for 2012 M Class SUV and the R class. Married up to that new engine was an upgraded 7 speed transmission as well.
Little else changed for the R class however. 19″ wheels remained standard, the option packages remain unchanged. This was to be the last official model year for the R class, less than 2,000 units were sold in the United States during the 2012 calendar year. R classes were reported sold during 2013 and even more recently than that through MBUSA, but those represent cars that were either left over MY 2012 models or cars that were never officially ‘sold’ until later.
Looking back, I think the R class concept was a good one… an upscale people mover for someone who didn’t want a minivan or huge SUV. Unfortunately, it was a difficult model to categorize and therefore, a difficult model to market properly. On top of that, it came along at a time when gas prices were high, the 2008 economic crisis hit just as its production was really hitting its stride and there were many, many other choices in the crossover / suv marketplace for consumers to choose from.
When I was a sales guy on the Mercedes-Benz show floor back in 2008 – 2012, I used to tell customers, “If I had to take 5 or 6 adults across the country today, I’d pick an R class over a GL 450 any day.” I found it more comfortable, especially the third row… and if it was equipped with the Panorama roof, you didn’t feel at all cramped back there.
I imagine the ‘survival rate’ for super low mile, time capsule R classes is going to be pretty low. Now might be the time to buy one to stash away for 20 years so someday you can pull it out and take it to display with the MBCA at Legends of the Autobahn and watch everyone crowd around asking ‘what’s that?’ “Why… that’s a Mercedes Benz R class, would you like to have a look inside?”
Mercedes R Class – U.S. Sales by Calendar Year
*All photos courtesy MBUSA and / oor the Daimler Media Archive.