Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Monster Retreats.

The Automotive world has a rich history of imitation, emulation, inspiration and outright forgery. Back in the seventies the Rover SD1 famously borrowed aspects of the Ferrari 365GTB/4, a successful endeavour which led to one of the most striking regular cars of the decade. At around that time De Tomaso were obviously dead keen on the Jaguar XJ6 as the lines of the Deauville demonstrated, and fifteen years later Toyota realised that the only way to beat the Germans at their own game was to base their product on a tried and tested formula. They chose the Mercedes S-Class and the resulting brand, Lexus, has been spectacularly successful.

But some such decisions have been less than successful, Surely somebody could have mentioned to the stylists at Mercedes that their new R-Class looked a teeny bit too much like a Ford Scorpio? Nobody said a word, it went into production and has sat languishing in showrooms around the world ever since.

It’s actually a fabulous car, if you evaluate it in isolation and suspend disbelief for a while. To drive an R350Cdi on a dark motorway is like being at the helm of a Eurostar train. There is little or no sensation of driving but an all-pervasive feeling of power and unstoppabillity. It is eerily quiet, has a beautifully judged ride and a habit of encouraging you to cruise at extra-legal velocities.

It was also staggeringly unattractive to look at. Well, fear not, that anachronistically bug-eyed front end has been ditched in favour of, well, an unbelievably bland one. It’s like, however hard they try, they just cannot dress the R-Class in a suit of clothes that make it anything more than dowdy and unexciting.

It’s hard to see what the R-Class is actually for. It shares oily bits with the ML off-roader, but has heavily road biased suspension so it’s not even a soft-roader, more a very good–in-the-rain-mobile. In practical terms it is actually less capable than a Ford S-Max, yet it commands a price twenty grand north. The third row of seats is somewhat less than accommodating, and the seventh seat between the rear occupants is laughable. But for all its ill-conceived-ness, it’s spectacularly good as a touring car, crossing continents with consummate ease.

I think it’s a shame Mercedes lost their bottle a bit with it. Previously you could buy an R500 and even an R55 AMG. Yes, over 500hp in a jumbo people-carrier is clearly ridiculous, therefore it becomes completely justifiable. But now with the facelift only the sensible V6 diesels remain and it no longer looks like an unholy alliance between Scorpio and minibus. Instead it looks like an elongated Plymouth Voyager, the car you turn to when you finally realise that all your boyhood dreams have been extinguished.

What Mercedes should have done, masters of brand extension as they are, is release an R-Class convertible model. Niche marketing at its most roofless.