When it is spread across these pages, Mercedes-Benz's R-class looks like any other car, nothing more than your run-of-the-mill MPV with attractive detailing and sharp lines. However, when seen barely a few feet away, the R-class' dwarves other cars around it. So much that the first question that pops into your heads is “it's great, but what is it — SUV, MPV or estate?”

Frankly, that's a very difficult question to answer. It weighs a whopping 2.2 tons, stands tall at 1.65 metres and has a wheelbase that measures 3215mm. As if this is not enough, the R-class is impossibly wide as well.

Merc, however, has done a fine job of hiding all this bulk and make the car look much more compact than it is.

Massive 18-inch wheels sit in sufficiently bulging wheel arches, the beltline leans forward for a touch of dynamism and the blacked-out pillars lend the R-class a sophisticated air. However, from the rear, this Merc looks a bit too rounded and soft, the lines of the pre-face-lifted car poking through. But rectangular chrome tailpipes, LED tail-lamps and a chrome load protector give the rear enough bling to impress the jet-set.

The R-class is a car designed fully with passenger space and comfort in mind. Many of the details and design features match those of the M-class — wide-slatted grille and sharp-cut headlamps. This car shares also its platform with the M and GL-class, four-wheel-drive system and more. These siblings share engines and transmissions as well. Designed to transport seven passengers in utmost luxury and comfort possible, the R-class is an SUV for people who don't want an off-roader.

So what's this built-for-the-U.S. seven-seat luxury car like on the inside? Simply fabulous. As on many Mercs, a hush descends when you ‘thump' the doors shut. Those familiar with Merc's M and GL-class will recognise many of the features on the inside — beautifully-finished steering wheel, sunken dial, pod-like central console and more. Merc has used metallic highlights to brighten up many bits on the inside and you can see them, for example, on the steering wheel and door handles. Plenty of wooden highlights, acres of padded leather, massive seats and enough entertainment options to keep even fidgety teenagers occupied lift the ambience of the cabin. A pair of flat screens and wireless headphones can be used by rear seat passengers, iPods can be attached inside the glovebox and a Harman Kardon ProLogic 7 system provides you the best of amplification and sound quality.

The rear seats can be adjusted forward or back, there's massive legroom and plenty of thigh support, and the centre seat can be folded to make a rather massive armrest. The best part about this car is that the third row seats are useable as well. No, you are not as comfortable as you would be when seated on either the first or second row, but these seats are a far cry from the solitary confinement chambers regular SUVs dish up. Sure, you sit lower than you would like to and there is only so much legroom, but these seats can be used by full-sized adults. And they are sufficiently comfortable for long drives as well. And you don't have to be a gymnast to get to the third row. The R-class is so long, there's some amount of luggage space in the rear, even with all three rows of seats up. Of course, should you need more space, both the second and third rows fold down flat as well. And then the next best thing is a full-sized truck. Merc only sells this long-wheelbase version of the R-class in India.

The big Merc is quite comfortable on the move as well. The heavy chassis, massive 255 tyres and Airmatic air suspension pummel the roads into submission, and only very few shocks are transmitted through to the cabin. The super-long wheelbase means there is almost no pitching and you often marvel at how beautifully the R-class glides over some very difficult patches our roads regularly chuck at you. However, the presence of air springs means that at low speeds you do feel some small sharp movements but these are not uncomfortable, only mildly irritating.

What the R-class has in terms of space, it lacks in terms of fun. This car's gargantuan dimensions and sheer bulk are at complete odds with agility, athleticism and responsiveness. Yes, the four-wheel-drive system gives it good grip, and it can hold on to a given line pretty well. But ask for anything more and you'd find a reluctant car under your arms.

What's impressive however, is Merc's petrol motor. A car of this weight should feel like a slug pushed by just 272bhp, but this just isn't the case. There's plenty of torque from 2400rpm, and with Merc's 7G-Tronic chopping up power effectively, the R-class accelerates with a satisfying surge from almost any speed. The motor is super-smooth, refinement is good and the throttle is easy to modulate it in traffic as well. It's a very nice engine but we get the feeling that most customers would have preferred a big diesel under the hood of the R-class. Fuel consumption isn't likely to be wallet-friendly.

It was clear from the beginning that the R-class wasn't for everyone. There are reasons for this. Estate cars are looked down in India. This car lacks the appeal of a tall standing SUV and the lack of a diesel version is likely to put some off. But this is a fabulous family car. There are very few cars that can transport seven passengers as comfortably as the R-class with as much refinement and luxury. It has that indestructible build all Mercs are famous for.


The big punchJanuary 18, 2011