Mercedes-Benz has launched its luxury R-Class people carrier here - though - take note that Merc says this isn't an, SUV, MPV or a crossover vehicle. No, Mercedes refers to the R-Class as a "Sports Tourer", creating yet another niche segment.
Basically the US-built R-Class expands the carmaker's line-up of people movers. In fact it looks like a (huge) big brother to the A-Class and B-Class models.
However, it is really posh - almost S-Class-like - and it is big on road presence too. It isn't necessarily a pretty car but it surely stands out and you can just imagine politicians and celebs being whisked away in an R-Class.
It can also be an opulent family limousine and perfect for soccer moms to transport kids between their private schools and violin lessons.
The R-Class was originally launched in 2005 and South Africa is getting the facelifted range, which made its appearance last year.
Only two models, the R320 CDI and R500, both with Merc's 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, are available here. Also, Mercedes is only introducing the seven-seater R-Class in SA offering ample space and a plush interior with all the bells and whistles imaginable.
Pricing starts at R640 000 for the diesel model and R735 000 for the V8 R-Class.
And as expected you can spec the car up with an optional list of extras with a total value of about R150 000.
So, if you have the extra cash you can spec up the R-Class with options ranging from AIRMATIC air-suspension, an 11-speaker Harmon/Kardon sound system, a rear seat entertainment system, with two 7-inch monitors and DVD player to Merc's COMAND navigation system.
Space... and more space
The R-Class shares its underpinning with the M-Class and measures 5 173 mm from nose to tail.
Spaciousness is the name of the game as up to seven passengers can be accommodated in three seat rows, with the last row being folding individual seats. All occupants have plenty of shoulder, leg and elbow room, albeit the third row offers slightly tighter accommodation.
All of the seats in the second and third seat row can be folded down. Additional spring-mounted flaps help to produce a largely flat, continuous load-compartment floor, even when the seats are folded down individually.
Both engines are familiar Mercedes units and the 320 CDI produces 165 kW of power with a muscular 510 Nm of torque and a claimed fuel consumption of 9.3 litres per 100/km. The V8 R500 develops 285 kW of power and torque is a potent 530 Nm.
Important standard safety equipment include ESP Trailer Stability Assist, Brake Assist System (BAS), Electronic Traction System (4-ETS) for all-wheel drive including automatic brake control for downhill gradients, Hill start assist, Anti-lock Brakes (ABS) Acceleration Skid Control (ASR), PRE-SAFE system and NECK-PRO active head restraints.
There are also dual front airbags and front/rear side airbags, full side curtain window bags, belt tensioners and force limited for front and outer rear seats.
The R-Class comes standard with Merc's PRE-SAFE anticipatory protection system too.
On the road
The R-Class is obviously more suited to cruising and the ride quality is impressive, especially with the optional air suspension set-up. Naturally this big Benz is challenged by cornering due to its size.
Both engines are a joy too and the 320 CDI is smooth and refined, while the tried-and-tested V8 is brisk and enables the R-Class to reach 0-100 km/h in about 7 seconds.
Power is directed through the standard-fit 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox, which is smooth and responsive.
One also doesn't feel intimidated too much by the R-Class's size and aids such as park distance control make it easier to manoeuvre too. True to SUV fashion the driver has a commanding position, while there is some decent ground clearance too.
Although it features the M-Class's 4MATIC all-wheel-drive setup, the R is not an off-roader. That said, this system enables the R-Class to deal easily with tricky situations and combined with the optional air-suspension it will do a better job with tougher road conditions than a normal estate car or SUV.
So in a way the R-Class offers the best of MPVs and SUVs.
Fit and finish, which has been an issue for Stuttgart in recent years, appears good and like the S-Class the R-Class certainly feels the upmarket part.
The Mercedes marketing team is adamant that the R-Class is unique and is at least honest that the R-Class doesn't compete against anything specific. When pushed for an answer about any possible rival, the Audi Q7 was mentioned.
Basically in our view Merc mixed design elements of a station wagon, minibus, MPV and SUV, sporty saloon and estate car into a single vehicle. Phew! And the surprising thing is that it sort of works.
It's a luxury people carrier which has the same opulent aura as an S-Class while it also gives you the spaciousness of an MPV and the practicality of an SUV. Then of course, there is a premium badge on the nose too...
R320 CDI: R640 000
R500: R735 000