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