REVIEW DATE: 16 Nov 2007
The Mercedes-Benz R Class offers Club Class refinement and still provides a sharp drive but does the R280 CDI model do itself justice? Andy Enright reports
When asked what buyers of 4x4s like best about their cars, it's usually the feeling of security that being seated high up engenders. The actual all-wheel drive mechanicals often count for very little in the buying decision, hence the rise of many vehicles that look like rugged 4x4s but have normal front-wheel-drive mechanicals beneath them. Mercedes is well set for proper 4x4s with the excellent M-Class and the leviathan GL-Class covering its luxury bases so it was with some surprise that the world greeted the all-wheel-drive R-Class on its debut back in 2001 at the Detroit Auto Show as the Vision GST (Grand Sports Tourer). The American link is apposite as this is where the overwhelming majority of R-Class models are sold. Can the R280 CDI, offered in standard instead of the more useful long wheelbase body, make an impact on the rather more cost conscious UK customer?
As with many Mercedes models, the badge on the back of the R280 CDI only give a vague clue as to the engine capacity. In this case it's powered by a 3.0-litre common rail diesel engine that's rated at 190bhp and which is quick enough to punt this Club Class lounge to 60mph from standstill in 9.8 seconds on the way to a top speed of 130mph. Rather surprisingly for a vehicle of these dimensions, the R Class feels nimble through the corners.
All R-Class engines are mated as standard to the 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission, equipped with DIRECT SELECT. A column-mounted shifter is backed up by wheel-mounted shift buttons that allow the driver to change gears 'manually'. Although not as sharp as a proper sequential manual box, it's a very good substitute and far superior to any SMG when left to its own devices in 'drive' mode. Unlike the rest of the R Class range, the R280 CDI isn't fitted with permanent all-wheel-drive, the chassis being a conventional rear-wheel-drive platform. ESP stability control ensures the R280 stays on the straight and narrow, even under severe weather and road conditions. AIRMATIC all-round air suspension is not available as an option for the R280. If there's such thing as a poor man's R-Class, this may well be it.
"Rather surprisingly for a vehicle of these dimensions, the R Class feels surprisingly nimble through the corners."
So, you've done without air suspension and four-wheel drive, plus you're missing the additional 31bhp shove of the R320 CDI that's generally perceived to be the pick of the range but is that the end of the caveats? In short, no. The biggest drawback to the R280 CDI is that it's just not big enough. The R Class chassis makes all sorts of sense in long wheelbase guise. There it's long enough to offer a seven-seat variant which has enjoyed a lot of take up else there's an ostentatiously spacious five-seat version. In standard wheelbase, the R Class isn't so clever, coming equipped with just five seats and space in the rear that is surprisingly compromised. If you're going to buy a rear-wheel-drive, five-seat Mercedes with no off-road ability, it all makes you wonder if your money wouldn't be better spent on an E-Class estate with a bigger and better engine.
Perhaps the styling will sway it for some, the R280 CDI having none of the E-Class Estate's rather fogeyish image. The R-Class is imposing with curving hips and voluptuously swaged flanks that are redolent of the CLS model, topped with a gently tapered glasshouse. It's no shrinking violet, measuring fully 4,922mm from tip to tail although the wheel at each corner stance does much from preventing a bulky appearance.
Two R280 CDI variants are on offer. The entry level SE model retails at £36,420 and includes features such as an eight-speaker CD stereo, automatic air conditioning, a trip computer, cruise control, 18-inch alloy wheels and a whole suite of safety gear including stability control, ISOFIX child seat mounts, six airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. You'll need to tack £1,500 onto that price to get hold of an R280 CDI in Sport trim but you do get 19-inch alloys, leather trim for the steering wheel and gear knob, leather and Artico fabric sports seats, metallic paint and aluminium fascia inserts.
Prices for the R280 CDI have recently been massaged a little lower, although the £2,700 gap between this car and the massively superior R320L CDI model just isn't wide enough to make the R280 a tempting choice. Given that just adding a DVD player and satellite navigation to the R280 will add over £3,700 onto its price, £2,700 for a long wheelbase body, a better engine and all-wheel drive seems a bargain of outrageous proportions.
The 3.0-litre diesel engine returns very respectable fuel figures, helped in no small part by the R280 CDI's slippery aerodynamics. The 30.4mpg combined fuel figure is a decent return for a car of this size and weight, although Group 19 insurance seems punitive for a vehicle that can only just crack 10 seconds to 60mph. The best part about running an R280 is the fact that the R-Class is just starting to build a following and residual values are very strong. You can expect to get 53 per cent of the new value of an SE model back three years down the road which compares to 48 per cent for an E280 CDI estate that would cost an equivalent amount.
Servicing costs for the R280 CDI are certainly not inconsequential, however, and it's also worth bearing in mind that the 246g/km of carbon dioxide emissions probably won't endear this car to too many company car drivers with a £40k budget. Buying a BMW 530d Touring, by contrast, knocks 10% off the benefit in kind taxation any company buyer would have to pay.
Mercedes makes some very good cars but every once in a while it drops a clanger. The R280 CDI is just that clanger and is a car that's extremely difficult to make a case for. So I won't try. Instead I will sing the praises of a car that costs a mere £2,700 more and which just serves to throw into sharp relief the R280 CDI's manifold deficiencies. The Mercedes R320L CDI is quicker, just as economical, emits no more carbon dioxide, runs on a long wheelbase body, is equipped with four-wheel-drive and suddenly looks like the bargain of the century in comparison.
The standard-length R-Class chassis that the R280 CDI rolls on doesn't bring anything to the party not served up by an E-Class estate and space inside is far more cramped. The long wheelbase R320L CDI, on the other hand, can seat seven and is a genuinely unique vehicle. I must apologise for this rather abrupt bait and switch but if you can find the additional funds for the R320L CDI, I can guarantee you'll be glad you did.
|For R-CLASS R280 CDI|
|OVERALL||7.0 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||8|