5am. Other than the milkman and the newspaper boy there are very few souls awake this early in the day. The few who believe their days must start at this unearthly hour are busy pounding the pavement. As for me, I'm trying hard not to run over these few early morning stragglers. Don't blame it on me, I may still be getting out of slumber but the behemoth I'm driving is so huge it easily scares the morning walkers into sticking to the extreme edges of the road.
That the Mercedes-Benz R350 4Matic is one massive vehicle is a given. However at 4.9 metres long and 1.9 metres wide it is just a bit shorter than the Q7 and even the GL class. But the impact of its bulk comes from its low stance and chunky proportions. It sits tremendously low to the ground, just 147mm above it in fact. The doors are so huge two people could walk in together through the same opening. The roof is yet another massive expanse of metal which the IPL has just identified it as a forthcoming 20/20 venue and that front face looks like it could swallow the whole of China without emitting a burp! So where exactly does a vehicle like the R-Class position itself?
In the Indian market that position isn't very clear but then even globally the R-Class finds itself in a bit of a lonely place. The R-Class was conceived as a MPV (multi-purpose vehicle), sold as a sports cruiser first and then toned down in market speak to a family tourer. It's a cross between a station wagon, a minivan and in very small doses an SUV. A majority of its sales came from the US market where it is manufactured and that's perhaps the only market in the world where it also finds its sole competitor, the Buick Enclave. Overall however there really isn't a direct alternative to the R-Class at least not until BMW comes out with its version of the MPV in the V Series. The R350 however fits the MPV class perfectly. The large dimensions translate to a very large and enormous cabin that offers three rows of seats to accommodate six or even seven passengers.
It is perhaps the only vehicle of any kind you will find in our market other than a van to offer loads of comfort with spacious seating for two full sized adults in the third row. These twin captain seats offer adequate lumbar support, and more importantly under-thigh support which over long journeys proves to be quite fatigue free. If you do require more room, the middle row can be brought forward to extend knee space. However with the third row seats in place, there is very little space for luggage behind in which case you have to fold the seats into the floor.
For even greater excesses, even the second row can be flattened out to offer a fully flat load bay. But that sparks off another problem. As a tourer you can never ever accommodate more than five passengers if you intend keeping luggage within. With six/ seven passengers on board the only way you can accommodate luggage is by installing a roof rack. That seating configuration is the R350's biggest USP, otherwise it is similarly spec-ed to any other car in the Mercedes fleet. Feature wise it has all the trimmings any other Mercedes offers. Even the design and style details of the interiors are similar to the other cars in the Mercedes fleet. Luxury is high up the order, leather, wood and aluminium inserts elevate this cabin.
You get all the standard feature supplements too, a full multimedia system, 6-zone climate control and enough cubbyholes and storage bins to stash Al-Qaeda's entire arsenal. Put together the weight of all its components and the R350's kerb weight is close to 2.2 tonnes. That kind of weight needs firstly a strong engine to haul it around and then an even stronger chassis and suspension package to support it. The engine in question is a 3.5-litre V6 petrol unit that displaces 3498cc. Power output is rated at a substantial 275PS that peaks at 6000rpm with an even healthier 350Nm of max torque available from as low as 2400rpm all the way to 5000rpm. Stab the throttle and the acceleration is rewarding.
The R350 for all its weight and girth is no slouch. It can muster momentum rapidly and strangely enough it's as full of energy as Jack Black leading the School of Rock. No wonder then this behemoth can still muster enough force to get past the ton in 9.6 seconds, which may not seem too fast for a 270PS V6 but then let's not forget the 2.2-tonne kerb weight. This motor and all its operations are silent but then there's enough sound deadening inside and outside the cabin to drown out the entire mohalla-walla brass band or-chestra. The power is also progressive and linear, it has a smooth lilting feel to it without getting chaotic or flustered when more is demanded of it. That is how most engines should behave, ready to deliver at a moment's notice. Refinement is certainly there but even more impressive than that is the eagerness.
Yet all the nice things I want to say about this engine are drowned out by the terrible 7G-Tronic gearbox. Upshift and you'd probably get a response next week, though downshifting is a lot quicker. Was this a defect? I don't think so, not when the responses were consistently poor be it in Sport or Eco mode. You see there is a small button on the dash which selects between Eco and Sport mode. Or you could opt to get into manual mode simply by clicking on any one of the paddles behind the steering wheel, the left to shift down right to go up. Yet the transmission only shifts up as and when its circuits decide to wire themselves together and communicate the desired effect to the ratios, which is most irritating, especially when you come hot out of a corner and are left waiting for the gears to shift up. Even switching off the traction control changes nothing. The transmission still feels despondent and loath to get cracking, certainly not complementary to its brilliant V6.
What this gearbox is supposed to personify is the R350's fuel efficiency but if you ask me an overall figure of around 8.5kmpl is nothing to be harping over. Anyway the engines more in demand globally are the diesels, as they offer more torque and make more sense economically and I suspect would be a lot more fun to drive than the petrol. So why the option isn't available for India is something only Mercedes-Benz will have the answers to. Wish I could enforce an RTI on them. So coming to the chassis and suspension bit, the R350 has an all-wheel drive, which means power is delivered to all four wheels though a 4ETS system.
The 4ETS system or 4-wheel electronic traction system, is an advanced form of 4WD which works in a slightly different manner to a differential lock though applying nearly the same principle. Simply put, sensors detect wheelspin on a particular wheel (loss of traction) and apply the brakes to that wheel bringing it down to the speed of the wheel on the opposite side that has traction, thereby ensuring torque is distributed evenly. This means in most cases your R-Class will keep moving rather than get bogged down even if just one wheel has traction.
There however is an inherent problem with the R-Class. It rides on Mercedes-Benz's proprietary Airmatic suspension, which is a sort of selective adaptive suspension. As in the suspension can be raised and lowered depending on the terrain manually. So when travelling across rough roads, you can raise the suspension and elevate the R-Class getting a bit more ground clearance, which keeps the undercarriage safe. When the speed exceeds 30kmph however the R-Class automatically lowers itself back to its ridiculously low for an MPV 147mm clearance.
Now if you come back to a rough patch however the R-Class will not detect the change in terrain and will not automatically raise itself. This applies to its on-road behaviour and as long as you remember to raise the suspension every time you come across a speed-breaker you won't have to listen to a wince-inducing, thrashing, grinding or tearing sound as the undercarriage sheds some skin over the breaker. Yet another factor compounding this situation is the extremely long wheelbase. At nearly three metres the distance between the front and rear wheels is large enough to slot an M800 into. On the other hand get a clear stretch of road, arrow straight or with plenty of curves and the R350 turns into an amazingly nimble yet beautifully poised beast and the only thing holding it back are the mists of doubt in your mind. The apprehensions about whether the R350 can or can not hurl itself around a bend aren't dictated by her physical traits but by the condition of her Airmatic suspension.
Airmatic allows you to choose between three drive modes at the touch of a button. In comfort she is absolutely divine, sorting out the rough from the smooth and offering the kind of ride quality that the three-pointed star has attained cult status for. In the medium setting she is ideal, balancing out the virtues of a fairly plush ride with a slightly stiffer set-up to tackle moderate enthusiasm. In the sport mode however, the ride goes deep south; you can quite literally feel it rolling over every striation on concrete in the pit of your stomach. But the converse of this is the handling. Suddenly you realise just how immaculately the R350 begins to track a smooth line through a corner with minimum understeer and fuss. The steering feels positive and more dynamic, body roll is eliminated and suddenly everything feels so much more direct and fun.
Of course the 4WD system has a large role to play in its poise which makes it akin to watching Yokozuna mastering kabaddi! Yet another fascinating thing about the R-Class is its inability to turn around in tight places despite being a Merc. This stems from the fact that every other vehicle in the fold is immensely astounding when you realise just how little effort and area is required to run them around. Lock to lock on the hydraulic assisted speed sensitive steering of the R350 is a very comfortable and slick 3.62 turns though the turning circle is 12.6 metres. In comparison an S-Class takes less than three turns of the wheel and turns a full 180 degrees in just 11.8 metres and well, the S-Class is just as long and wide.
Overall then the R-Class is quite something, but what that something is exactly isn't very clear. As an MPV sports tourer, its astonishingly brilliant handling is a revelation when set up the right way. But as tourer the seven seats are a bit of a conundrum because if you had to seat seven or even six and tour the countryside, where are you going to put the baggage? That means you're forced to put on a roof rack and that is going to upset the handling. And then in India who really tours with a petrol engine, which when driven enthusiastically just does not support any financial plan?
Which brings us back to the question, why no diesel? Mercedes' plan for the R-Class should have from the word go been centred around a diesel, considering the bulk of their sales comes from diesel powered cars. As for the 4WD capability you go to several places in the back of beyond, but not without wondering if you'd broken the sump or misaligned the lower wishbones or ripped open the catalytic converter. So at around 59.38 lakh rupees the answers to why would anyone want to invest in the R350 are as faint as this car's purpose. If you wanted a tourer sans the sporty disposition you could easily shell out an extra 10 lakh for the GL which rest assured will take you way deeper into the wild than the R350 can ever hope to. Plus it's a diesel, plus it has ground clearance, plus it's got three rows of seats and just as much room in its boot.
Mercedes claims to have sold out its entire first lot of this CBU, which to me signals one thing: we are still devoid of enough choice and are ready to lap up almost anything, as long as it's not what my neighbour has.