What factors contribute to the size of your typical family? Costs, contraception, the size of the family home, the fear of having an uneven-numbered odd-one-out, divorce? One of my overbearing concerns has always been the limiting effect a larger family would have on my choice of car, both in terms of enjoyment and in purely practical concerns. Selfish, I know. But true. Stick with two kids – like me – and you can still smoke about in a hot saloon; up that tally to three or more and it’s goodbye LSD, hello seven-seat USP.
But there was one thing I hadn’t banked on: guests. Now, I’d always presumed you could squeeze five people in the back of something like, say, our 3-series estate, but with my toddler and six-month old bolted to the car via Isofix – which necessitates them being on either side of the rear bench – and cocooned in huge child seats that would probably protect them from a 150mph shunt at the ’Ring, there’s actually no room left in the middle for a small occasional adult. A small occasional adult such as, for instance, my American mother-in-law Mara who comes over for a couple of weeks twice a year to do the washing up.
This time we decided to introduce Mara to France, which gave us a problem: we’d need two cars to move five people, and that just doubled the costs, logistical hassle, driver fatigue and wear and tear on a trip that would amount to around 1000 miles all in and take in a ferry crossing too.
Cue Mercedes R-class…
So I started looking around at seven-seat cars that I might be able to borrow. Now, I’ve never really spent much time snooping around this end of the market, but I quickly started turning up SUVs – BMW X5s, Land Rover Discoveries and so on. Rightly or wrongly, I’m not a huge fan of SUVs; I can certainly appreciate that a Disco is a very impressive piece of kit, but I always feel ridiculous when I meet someone in a Clio on a narrow road and have to use my all-terrain hardware to, erm, climb the kerb and squeeze past them. ‘It’s not mine! Don’t like them! I’m a journalist! Testing it!’ So, SUVs were out. Then I started looking at Ford’s Grand C-Max and S-Max. Much better – good to drive, bags of practicality ¬– but they’re not as big as those SUVs, and really, I’m a sucker for a good old six-cylinder and, well, a bit of that SUV luxury.
That’s when I turned up something I’d never previously considered: the Mercedes R-class. I’ve always discounted them as ugly-looking things, but it was perfect: premium feel, effortless and frugal six-pot power, a smooth ride and, in long-wheelbase trim, bags of room.
So the R-class is the alternative to the bulky SUV and mumsy MPV?
A lot of the R-class’s appeal, for me, was psychological – it was barely any more frugal or cleaner than a Disco (though it was), and while it was nearly 300kg lighter and 100mm narrower, it was, at 5157mm, over 300mm longer than the Disco. It’s still a hulking big four-wheel drive! Yet I just felt better about the idea of driving it. Perhaps that’s hypocritical on my part, but it also suggests some clever niche-plugging from the Mercedes product planners – there must be plenty of people with my mindset.
Despite its size, packing the R-class for our week-long trip – double buggy, bags, books, toys, kitchen sink – still demanded a fair degree of strategic scratching of chin. I decided that the toddler would probably be happier in the middle row – especially because our test car’s optional DVD screens were on the back of the front seats’ headrests – so I put both the kids’ seats there, and put one adult in the two part-time rear seats, which pop up independently of each other from the boot floor to leave a kind of L-shaped boot floor when just one is in use. They’re not massively comfortable rear seats, especially compared with the opulence of the full-time leather chairs, but even I could manage a couple of hours back there without suffering panic attacks.
But with two child seats in the middle row, it becomes impossible to tilt the middle row forward, meaning the rear-seat passenger would have to climb in the front of the car, remove their shoes, then follow the transmission tunnel backwards. It was a compromise worth taking, I decided.
How practical is the Mercedes R-class?
As with all seven-seaters, there’s a bit of a Catch 22 – the more you make use of those two part-time rear seats, the less boot space there is, but the more likely you are to need it. Plus you can’t properly seal off cargo from the passenger compartment. Anyway, I put the heavy stuff lowdown then, once I’d filled the available space in the boot, put some softer stuff in the footwells that the kids’ short legs wouldn’t touch. It took me hours to find the DVD slot (it’s under the armrest in the centre console, but the slot is at the front of the compartment, so it’s easy to miss when you first look down, especially as I was packing in the dark), but once I found it I slotted in Tangled and we were ready to roll the next morning.
Drive an R-class and one of the first things you notice is how good the wafty ride quality is – perfect for a luxury family car. The steering’s a good match for it too, being fairly lazy but not at all unpleasing, while the engine delivers easy gobfuls of thrust. Could be a bit smoother when you rev it harder, though.
Isn’t the R-class a bit dated now?
Despite the R-class being updated not so long ago, it strangely sticks with the last-gen-style Comand multi-media system, so instead of the more intuitive BMW iDrive-style rotary controller, you still make your choices by pressing arrows next to the screen in the dash. I quickly adapted, but today’s Comand is so much better and it’s a shame that R owners get left out.
In a couple of hours we found ourselves at Calais, ready to board a late-morning P&O crossing. Now, I nearly always prefer to take the ferry instead of the Chunnel – the exception is when I’m not travelling very far in Europe, and I don’t really need a rest and something to eat before making the next leg. But in the Chunnel you’re stuck in what feels like a shipping container for half an hour or so, and the toilets always seem to be in another country. The ferry might be slower, but it’s cheaper, plus you get to walk about, get some fresh air and have a proper meal – I often find you need to stop for something to eat once you’re in France anyway if you take the Chunnel, so the time saved gets consumed in other ways.
Ninety minutes of swanning about on the ferry later, we were driving west through France, heading for Caen, before coming off the autoroute to our holiday cottage near Vire.
How ecnomical was the R350 CDI?
The Merc’s trip computer revealed that we’d travelled 435miles in 6hr 12min at an average of 70mph and 29.6mpg. Not at all bad, I reckoned.
I wouldn’t say we were all fresh as daisies after that schlep, but the R-class certainly helped what was a very long journey – especially from a kid’s point of view – pass by relatively effortlessly.
I still want a hot car to smoke about in but, as a family of four, there’s definitely a lot we’d get out of a long wheelbase R-class, and it’s been missed since I handed back les clefs.