Memorial Day is celebrated with afternoons of softball, swimming, and pigs on a spit, but maybe in 2006 we should return to the great days of loading the family into a station wagon and visiting the cemeteries and battlefields that got us a three-day weekend in the first place. At least, those were my thoughts as I drove the new Mercedes-Benz R-Class 350 to a picnic lunch on the 85-acre site of the Battle of Princeton, which helped change the course of the Revolutionary War under the bold direction of military-legend-in-the-making George Washington. Traversing New Jersey's Mercer County (named for a brigadier general who died after taking a severe bayoneting) gave me a chance to appreciate the R350, which combines elements of a station wagon, sedan, and SUV in a beautiful four-wheel-drive machine. Like station wagons of old, the gearshift is on the steering column. Unlike wagons of old, this one has all six seats facing forward so kids don't have to watch the biker gangs closing in fast on the highway.
The R350 is quite roomy, with 36 inches between the first two rows and 32 inches between the middle and back rows. And eliminating the gearshift lever between the two front seats opens up a nice bit of space for both driver and front-seat passenger. The sense of roominess increases if you add the optional sunroof that basically runs the length of the vehicle. With safety features such as antilock brakes, an electronic traction and stability system, and a system that automatically diverts more power to the brakes when it senses emergency braking, the R350 is a country mile from the Griswold "Family Truckster." It's an elegant alternative to an SUV or minivan that's just as suited for shuttling around a group of clients as it is for hauling the kids cross-country to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown this year.
2006 Mercedes-Benz R350
$48,775 base price, $54,865 as tested
3.5-liter 268-hp V-6 engine; 258 pound-feet of torque; 0 to 60 in eight seconds; 16/21 mpg
The huge rear doors open on hinges, which means no more bumping heads while shoehorning the kids into the third row or dealing with the inevitable breakdown of a sliding panel. With power rack-and-pinion steering, it drives like a Mercedes sedan, not a grocery getter.
The digital dashboard takes a bit of getting used to, and the below-the-steering-wheel paddle controls that allow the driver to shift gears manually are awkward to maneuver, especially if you prefer the nontraditional two-and-eight or four-and-11 hand positions.
"The R-Class represents the best of all worlds in one sleek package that you never knew was missing from your philistine existence," says Ayman Shairzay, editor in chief, eCityofAutos.