“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.