Far-Sighted, or Visually Impaired?

The 2006 R-Class was a rare commercial failure for Mercedes-Benz. DTW asks if it was ahead of its time, or simply misconceived.

2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class (c) honestjohn.co.uk

Over the past decade, the onslaught of SUV type vehicles has swept through the automotive market like a tsunami, pushing aside traditional formats such as the classic three-box saloon, estate and larger hatchback models. Even more recent innovations such as the monobox MPV have been rendered irrelevant by its irresistible rise. In the mainstream European market, anything larger than a B-segment vehicle now generally plays second fiddle to its SUV sibling, if it has not already been killed off by it. The premium marques’ larger saloons are still selling, albeit in reduced numbers as buyers switch to SUVs instead.

Ironically, one of the casualties of the SUV onslaught has been the traditional body-on-frame ‘proper’ 4WD vehicle. Twenty years ago, an SUV was a Land-Rover Discovery, Mitsubishi Shogun or Isuzu Trooper. All were hugely capable of tackling the roughest off-road conditions. Nowadays, the most challenging obstacle a new generation SUV is likely to face will be a high kerb in the supermarket car park, and its 22-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels and low-profile tyres might make such a manoeuvre a foolish and expensive mistake.

The attractions of the SUV are easy to understand. They are spacious and practical, and their elevated driving position gives them a sense of safety and security on the road. They also conjure up positive images of an active, healthy outdoor lifestyle*. However, as an increasing proportion of private vehicles on the road are SUVs, these benefits are gradually being neutralised, and drivers are becoming more aware of their drawbacks.

SUVs are bulky and difficult to manoeuvre and park in the confines of narrow city streets. Many off-street parking spaces are simply too small for their bulk, making egress and entry difficult and tiresome. On the open road, the basic laws of physics mean it is much more difficult to achieve an acceptable compromise between handling and ride because of their high centre of gravity: either they roll precariously through every roundabout or, more usually, the ride is brittle and unyielding.

There is, of course, the means to minimise this problem through the use of sophisticated computer-controlled suspension systems, but this just adds weight and complexity to an already heavy and aerodynamically inefficient vehicle. The size and perceived profligacy of large SUVs has made them a regular target for militant environmental activists, who have vandalised such vehicles and hurled abuse (and worse) at their drivers.

There is, however, a new kid in town, offering many of the benefits of an SUV, but without the drawbacks. It is the ‘Crossover’ and is essentially a taller estate car with the option of some faux off-road addenda for those who want it to look at home in muddy country lanes.

Hubbert with the 2004 GST concept. (c) mercedes-benz-community-weebly

When I first saw speculative renderings of the mooted 2021 Ford Mondeo/Fusion replacement and photos of the recently launched Mustang Mach-E, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Why does that profile look so familiar?  Then, I remembered the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class, arguably, the first** large crossover.

The R-Class was first revealed in 2002 as the Vision GST Concept, the letters standing for Grand Sport Tourer. The company was typically bullish about the new concept, describing it as a touring saloon, estate, people carrier and sport utility vehicle all rolled into one. Professor Jürgen Hubbert, then Member of the Board of Management of DaimlerChrysler AG responsible for Mercedes-Benz and Smart passenger cars, claimed that the company “…has defined a new market segment with the Vision GST – a segment with huge potential for the future.

The concept was indeed distinctive, with its rear-hinged rear passenger doors, no B-pillar and three rows of two seats in its luxuriously appointed interior. All four passenger doors could be opened to 90° for easy entry and exit. The roof was made of electrochromic glass and its tint could be electrically adjusted to deal with all exterior light conditions.

The production R-Class was launched at the 2005 New York Auto Show as a 2006 model. After the stunning concept, it was something of an anti-climax, with its four conventional passenger doors. Its design encompassed a slightly uneasy amalgam of the company’s millennial ovoidal shapes and the subsequent more angular style, which was immediately evident in the odd front light treatment. The interior was contemporary Mercedes-Benz, superficially luxurious, but let down by some cheap detailing.

The R-Class was offered in standard 2,980mm and extended 3,215mm wheelbase versions. It was built in the United States, which was expected to be its biggest market, although only the longer wheelbase version was offered there. Petrol engines ranged from 3.0 and 3.5 litre V6 to 5.0 and 5.5 litre V8 units. There was also an R63 version with a 6.2 litre V8, but this was offered for one year only (2007) and sales were derisory. A 3.0 litre diesel with three different power outputs was also offered and all engines were mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, with a choice of rear or four-wheel-drive.

2007 Chrysler Pacifica (c) top speed.com

Mercedes-Benz confidently forecasted annual sales of around 50k, but the R-Class was a confusing car for the market. In the US, it was perceived as a large (and expensive) 6/7 seat MPV and was uncomfortably similar in size and appearance to the 2004 Chrysler Pacifica, a similarly conceived but cheaper mainstream in-house rival. The Pacifica was the first jointly engineered project following the 1998 DaimlerChrysler merger. Neither the R-Class nor the Pacifica was a success. Buyers who needed maximum passenger space bought a minivan, everyone else just went for an SUV.

The R-Class was subjected to a minor facelift in 2011 when it received new and more conventional front lights, similar to those of the contemporary C-Class, new rear light graphics and some other tweaks, none of which made any difference to its sales performance. Over an eight-year production run, the R-Class managed to achieve just 53,704 sales in the US. It did no better in Europe, where the equivalent figure was 46,372. Total annual sales therefore averaged just 12.5k.

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-class (c)

Strangely, the R-Class has enjoyed an afterlife in the Chinese market, where it has been on sale since 2014 and achieves annual sales of around 12k. Because of the low sales volumes, production has been contracted out to a third-party manufacturer, albeit still based in the US. The very spacious rear seats make the R-Class a good choice for those who prefer to be driven rather than to drive, still an important segment of the Chinese market.

Would the R-Class be better understood and received by the market if it were launched today as a crossover? That is the question I will leave our esteemed readership to ponder.

* Whether or not the driver ever participates in such activities is a moot point.

** Or second, after the Chrysler Pacifica, of course.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

27 thoughts on “Far-Sighted, or Visually Impaired?”

  1. Daniel, thanks for this. A vehicle which has completely gone off most people’s radar – Daimler may prefer it that way – but interesting on many levels; inspiring concept to underwhelming reality, the early 21st century search for the ideal passenger vehicle concept, and the utter dysfunctionality of the Daimler-Chrysler merger.

    I wasn’t aware that seven years after the R-Class was ‘retired’ for the rest of the world, AM General are still turning them out in a factory in Indiana for the Chinese market at the rate of around 250 per week. We can only presume that Daimler maintain this contract because it makes them money. It goes completely against the current received wisdom of across-the-board platform and component sharing being the only way to profitability.

    1. Good morning Robertas. Yes, it is interesting that the economies of sub-contracting allow the R-Class to continue in production when one might have assumed it died years ago. Given the fact that, one assumes, all the development costs had been written off and the model-specific manufacturing machinery had been depreciated to zero by Mercedes-Benz, it’s probably quite a sweet deal. It’s still on the Mercedes-Benz China website and configurator, available in three engine sizes and 2WD or 4WD, all LWB. Not bad for a fifteen year old model.

      I wasn’t aware of the Chrysler Pacifica and how closely it matched the R-Class in conception and size until I began researching this piece. Apart from the crass nose, the Chrysler is not bad looking.

    1. Good afternoon, Christopher. That would be His Devine, Sensual and Pure Majesty, Emperor Gorden of Stuttgart (whose given name is, scandalously, mis-spelt on the official Mercedes-Benz archive website to which your link above leads. Someone’s career is over when he spots the error!)

    2. A long time ago, I was told by a social worker relative that unconventionally-spelled surnames are a sure sign of trouble. Her advice has so far proved infallible.

    3. Good advice, Robertas.

      In my teaching career, I once had a student in my class called ‘Naphen’. When he came for interview to be accepted on the course, I mistakenly called him ‘Nathan’ and he abruptly corrected me. I can only assume that ‘Naphen’ was how his parents pronounced ‘Nathan’ and they simply spelt it phonetically for his birth certificate!

      And yes, he was a complete nightmare in class.

  2. There’s an R-Class living at the top of my street. But in the six years we’ve lived here I’ve never managed to speak to the owner/driver to discuss his purchase. Being on a private plate I have no clue to the year but under the bonnet is the 350 labelled Diesel engine. For an oil burner, it does make a nice sound as it accelerates up our significant hill and the shape remains quite attractive. But then I read of our Gorden’s involvement…

    1. It is my understanding that not only was our ‘Gordo’ involved with the initial concept GST, but also a certain Steve Mattin, that constant presence when it comes to a certain era of Benz style. From what I can gather, the production design was overseen by Deiter Futschik, who prior to becoming a senior design manager had been involved with more lasting M-B designs.

      The R-Class concept had promise, but the execution was (as was typical of M-B at the time), somewhat slapdash and casual. I see one of these quite frequently in the locality and despite being a SWB version, am always struck by how massive it looks. It probably didn’t matter in the end – the crossover SUV was what people liked the look of themselves in, but I do wonder if the design had been a little better executed whether it may have delayed the inevitable for a little longer?

  3. Very interesting question. I’d say it wouldn’t succeed and I think manufacturers have to be very careful how far they go down the ‘estate with big wheels’ route (I know they will increasingly need to adopt this shape, in order to maximise the range of EVs).

    I would think that the appeal of SUVs, even coupé SUVs, is their chunky looks, presence on the road, ease of entry and exit, roominess and good visibility (via their height). Something lower and aerodynamic may lose some of the SUV appeal.

    On another topic, I’d like to say RIP, Sir Terence Conran. He did a great deal for the promotion of good design, broadened people’s horizons and brightened their lives.

    1. Hi Charles. Absolutely agree about Sir Terence, a man who brought good design within reach of the masses. He is a sad loss, as is Dame Diana Rigg. As a young boy, I used to ask my dad if I could stay up to watch ‘The Avengers’ and he would readily agree. Emma Peel was the very embodiment of 60’s cool in her leather cat suits!

      You know you’re getting old when you start losing heroes from your younger days, sadly.

    2. Hello Daniel – yes, I think she brightened a fair number of people’s lives too! At least one of the Elans she drove is still around, I think.

  4. Is is any wonder that SUVs have become more popular if the alternative looked like the R-class? It’s dismal; bland and anonymous as with other Mercedes of around the time. Probably a pity, possibly a great car to live with and own, but you have to lure people into the showroom before any of that is even possible!

  5. Couldn’t agree more about Terence Conran and Dianna Rigg. But Charles – SUVs have presence? Good visibility? Sorry, they have neither. They are quite simply far too bloated and take up far too much road space. The interior space is woefully inadequate in comparison to their footprint and the view from high seating is negated by the blind spots created by the thickness of their A pillars in particular.
    For the UK and Ireland we desperately need to design vehicles which fit the environment in which they are used – rather than expect to adapt the environment to fit the vehicle.
    And it isn’t just SUVs. Emma Peel’s Elan was tiny by current standards, as is just about anything from that era.

    1. Hello JTC,

      I’ve always sneered a bit at SUVs, but I had the chance to have one (a Tiguan) for a day recently, and really enjoyed it. It wasn’t as cumbersome as I expected and it felt very ‘safe’ / isolated from the outside world.

      I honestly found the view out to be very good. I was also impressed by the body control – it felt very stable. Finally, I thought it was nicely made, out of well-chosen materials, all for the price of a well-specified supermini, if you bought nearly new.

      As you say, though, it would be inconvenient on a daily basis, as it would be too big for where I live. That point was demonstrated when an SUV of a similar size which was in front of me, recently, tried to enter a local car park; it couldn’t and the driver had to reverse back out and find somewhere else to park. That would get tiresome very quickly.

      I can see why people like SUVs, though.

  6. Several carmakers decided in the early mid 2000s that crossovers styled to look like raised roof wagons(as we say in the US) were the way forward. In addition to the DaimlerChrysler products from this article, Fiat produced the second generation Croma and Ford made the Freestyle, later renamed Taurus X. Ford even had a follow up in the Flex.

    They actually made a lot of sense, especially in comparison to SUV style crossovers. They had a higher hip point than regular wagons, giving easier entry/exit as well as the coveted “command position” while a ride height closer to conventional made for a better balance between ride and handling. They had vast amounts of cargo space with the rearmost seats folded down. With the seats in place one could seat up to seven in comfort(except in the Fiat, which I don’t think had a third row). And there must have been aerodynamic advantages over their off roader inspired competition.

    These advantages didn’t translate to success in the marketplace however, except for the R Class’s bizarre Chinese afterlife. And I’ve also heard that the Flex had unusually high transaction prices along with a small but very devoted following. Other spins on the theme(high seating, lower ride height) also failed: Acura ZDX, BMW 3/5 GT, Honda Crosstour, Toyota Venza. So maybe CUV buyers want their vehicles to have an aggressive demeanor along with perceived passive safety.

    1. Good morning Ben. The Ford Flex was an interesting design. I rather liked its ‘slammed Range Rover’ appearance.

      There seems to be a lot of sense in making a ‘utility’ vehicle as square and boxy as possible. Clever finessing of the details of the bodywork resulted in a pretty respectable claimed cd of 0.335.

      I was clearly in a minority as the Flex never sold as well as Ford forecasted, although it remained on the market for a decade.

      I’ve never been convinced by monobox MPVs. The large space in front of the driver and front seat passenger is useless and the front quarter visibility was often compromised by the double A-pillars and front quarter window.

  7. I have to admit that there SUVs and there are SUVs – the Tiguan is considerably less offensive than most (my experience is limited to the front passenger seat of a friend’s). And I really do appreciate the appeal of a lofty driving position; back in the day the first generation of Ford Transit vans were not only dynamically far superior to their competitors, they were so to most cars. My drive of choice at every opportunity!
    But the fact remains that all cars have grown exponentially in bulk since then and do so with each new model. Rarely, however, does the interior space increase in proportion – it’s all down to protecting the occupants from the apparently universally expected collision. Conclusion? Cars are too big for the roads they have to use and are presumed by their designers to be driven by idiots with no taste.
    I’ll get my coat…..!

    1. Hi JTC. My sister drives a Tiguan and her husband a Kodiaq, and it’s hard to argue with the practicality of either. Both are very comfortable too. Once you accept that they’re not going to handle with the precision of a sports car (and how many drivers really need that quality?) they make a lot of sense. The Kodiaq is about as large as you would want for congested European roads.

    2. You know you are using my words. I have a copyright on the insult “Idiots with no taste”. I usually charge royalties for it, but I overlook it generously as it was used in the right context. 🙂

  8. Hello again Daniel. I suppose it all boils down to perception – and I just find it difficult to come to terms with current taste. And I accept that I am the one who is out of sync! Roads on which I have driven for half a century, where I could pass oncoming vehicles safely without either of us slowing down, are now clogged by vehicles being driven straddling the centre line by people who pull up rather than move over. Having their seat set at its lowest position with the lower edge of screen and side windows somewhere up around their ears doesn’t help; neither does a bleeper telling them that they are nearer to the hedge alongside than they really are. It all seems counter-productive.
    But having now found my coat, I’ll get back in my box…

    1. Hi JTC. I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said, as you’ll gather from my criticism of SUVs in the piece above. I think the automotive arms race that’s producing monsters like the Mercedes-Benz GL, BMW X7 and Audi Q8 is obscene. Large parts of the industry seem to be in denial about climate change, whatever they say to the contrary.

  9. Thank you Daniel. I feel much better now! And as I squeeze past such machines I am reminded of a common sight in my youth – little old ladies trundling along in their Morris Minors as they peer through the spokes of the steering wheel. Not quite the intended image.

  10. Good afternoon Chaps.
    I am delighted that you have reminded me of just how many product-planning failures have been foisted on us in the quest for what has become the inevitable big thing.
    A SUV.
    Splendidly Useless Vehicles all.
    I too fear that electrification and the need to package batteries allied to the desire of drivers to DOMINATE will see them hiding the sun from view for years to come.
    The Nissan Rasheen came to mind when I saw the photo of the Flex while perusing the eloquent points of view expressed on the theme of the R. I had forgotten that particular Pike Car..
    I think that GW can be forgiven where this particular monster is concerned. The faceless product chappies who convinced the board that a market existed for it however..

  11. When the R-Class was released, some of my wife’s clients were making PR films for the vehicle. One of those films was about 20-somethings talking about traveling in the 21st century, and I thought, either the boys of Untertürkheim or I missed the right descent somewhere along the way.

    If they had at least kept the door concept of the study. But that was probably not possible for reasons of warranty.

    It is interesting, however, that the R-Class was never used by any exclusive chauffeur services, although it would actually have been (almost) perfect for it. That actually says almost everything about this vehicle.

  12. I am constantly reading, including here, that SUVs take up an excessive amount of road space, are difficult to drive etc. If one didn’t buy a Mercdes GLE, one might well go for an E-class estate – longer and wider than the GLE – or something even bigger as the E-class is £17,000 cheaper than the GLE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.