“A wholly new motoring experience” said Mercedes in 2006, but the R-Class not only fell between two stools, it also fell well short of expectations.
Product planning is an unholy art, akin to sticking a wetted finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing – scientific it ‘aint. Showing a marked similarity in conceptual terms to Giugiaro’s Maserati Kubang proposal of 2003, Mercedes-Benz showed their Vision GST (Grand Sports Tourer) concept in 2004, (the work of amongst others, Steve Mattin and Gorden Wagener), a window into the Swabians’ plans to straddle SUV, MPV and estate sectors. A year later they displayed the car in pre-production clothes as Vision R – the production car (styled under the supervision of Deiter Futschik), dubbed W251 and marketed as R-Class debuting a decade ago.
Jürgen Hubbert’s career at the helm of Mercedes-Benz was drawing to a close, the R-Class part of his strategy to extend the Mercedes brand into every available niche, to variable degrees of success. In this he was ably assisted by possibly the least credible stylistic direction of Mercedes’ latterday history – that of former Design Director, Peter Pfeiffer. Despite this handicap, the R-Class was well received – in stylistic terms at least, receiving the 2006 Design Zentrum Nordrhein-Westfalen ‘Red Dot award’, rewarding designs expressing modern purity without ornamentation.
Assembled in the same Daimler production facility in Alabama where its ML-Class platform-mate was built, the R-Class was aimed directly at the land of the free, itself a ploy fraught with risk, as anyone with an appreciation of history might have informed them. Based on the 4×4 platform of the ML-Class SUV, it weighed a hefty 2295kg in long wheelbase form. But all that length and mass carried one advantage. With rear seats folded it could hold 2385 litres of breathable air.
Space therefore it had aplenty. A big car even in short wheelbase form, the LWB model was truly gargantuan, possibly too much so for European city streets. Mercedes had high hopes for the R-Class however with a projected 50,000 sales per annum, but actual numbers fell well short of this – particularly in the US, where it was expected the bulk of sales would be found.
Here in the UK, the car was viewed with ambivalence. Autocar for instance gave it a lukewarm review, saying; “The R-Class sounds like the jack of all trades; it’s certainly the master of none.” Despite its vast size they dismissed the shorter model, saying the only point in having one is to bask in the space inside that it offered. While lauding the interior ambience as ‘a masterpiece’, they were less effusive about its road behaviour, opining; “It’s not within a country mile of what you’d call fun, but compared with its offroad competitors its more than good enough.” However, even brand new, they warned that ownership came with risk, citing poor projected depreciation. Even the more desirable lwb model set to retain only 38% of its value after three years.
The R-Class was a poor seller in Europe and poorer still in the US. Mercedes-Benz pulled the model from North America in 2012 and from Europe a year later – although it retained some attraction for the Chinese market. It was killed off last year. The R-Class, like the Maserati concept that could have been said to have inspired it probably came too late to alter the SUV advance that was fast becoming the default.
Customers ultimately preferred the narrative offered by the high-rider – that and the image it conveyed. SUV’s simply allowed their drivers to feel more heroic. R-Class also emerged at a time of rampant expansion, when manufacturers like Mercedes could afford to take a speculative punt on a leftfield concept and accept the financial hit if it didn’t quite work out. No longer. It is perhaps a bit of a cliché to say we won’t see its like again, but in this case, not only is it the case, but one cannot say that tears are in order.
7 thoughts on “Starship Benz”
Only the dimensions count as a quantitative problem with the R-Class. The other factors speak more about consumers’ delusions and motoring journalists’ prejudice. It is, at another level, quantifiable how few customers wanted such a car but that’s a discussion for another philosophy debate.
Like the Signum from Opel, this car made focus-group sense, being an idea derived from the likelihood that there were people who wanted some aspects of other formats but who were not satisfied with all of them together. It was a received wisdom estates were less frumpy than MPVs but MPVs were more practical. SUVs dominated the road but were a bit aggressive, and hatchback five doors were useful but not classy enough for Mercedes at the higher price levels. It ought to have made sense to a large number of people including taxi firms. Finally, the car evidently was not a sports car and should never have been judged by its fun-factor but its comfort.
Essentially the R-Class was an S-class estate and if it had been that it would have sold better. As it stood the categories it fitted into were fictions of the product planner: half apple, one third banana and nine-tenths kiwi-fruit because half apple buyers, one third banana buyers and nine-tenths of kiwi buyers might choose something else if it was more apply, bananish kiwi-fruity if given a chance.
In short, the story is of a smooth riding spacious car with enough SUV, MPV and estate car to turn off SUV, MPV, estate-car hating drivers who wanted a sports-car road manner.
I don’t see why it didn’t do well. It seems like a far better answer to the needs of many people who buy SUVs and, much as I’m not averse to joining in Merc bashing, based on many of their products over the past 15 years or more, in this case I feel that its failure is more a shortcoming of their customers, than of its creators. Encouraged by the substantial depreciation and the rather comfy looking interior, I even toyed with the idea a year or two back, but I don’t need that much space and I thought the driving experience did sound a bit stodgy. But stodgy really doesn’t matter for lots of people – if they could actually own up to the requirements they actually have, rather than the ones that journalists feel they should have. Also, the styling themes I loathed on their saloons, actually suit the R a lot better.
Like the Signum:clever package and stupid customers.
I’ve often thought that I’d like a recent facelifted LWB model. I like them once the snake eyes out front of the original ones were done away with. But sadly the tech inside is still 10 years old. Whereas on a Land Rover Discovery (that is also a 10 year old design) at least the tech got comprehensively updated over the years. This car is VERY dated inside.
The R-class was pretty much the Nouveau Espace of its time, in terms of its basic concept. And as I don’t mind that car, I cannot be too critical of its Swabian progenitor.
But the marketing didn’t quite get it right, and I’m told build quality isn’t anything to shout about, either. I’d still rather have one of these than a GL, or whatever Dr Zed decides to name that thing this week.
By the way, if I’m not mistaken, a certain Gorden (sic) Wagener had a hand in the original R’s exterior styling. They do know how to nurture a talent at Untertürkheim.
I certainly don’t think the R-Class was terrible, but I do believe that a less US-focused, less gigantic looking car would have made more of an impact sales-wise – in the European market at least. Ten years ago there was still a chance to take sales from SUV’s, whereas that horse has well and truly bolted now. Also, as witnessed by the rather more harmonious looking facelift, a less gawky nose treatment would have served the car better.
The R-class looks like a fat A-class. An inconsequential design (the front looks like some parts of other cars are puzzled together) without any Premium-touch. Even the ugly Fiat 500X is a better work on this theme (but not very much better).
I´m sure, It would have been much more convincing to built a Crossover in the more edged style of the GLK – or of the Ford Flex.
I don´t like the new Renault Espace too much but compared to the R-class I have to say Renault has done a pretty good job – more than 50 years after the Renault 4, the first Crossover….