Intent on adding a new and sorely needed measure of buyer appeal to its posh people mover, Mercedes-Benz has given its 2011 R-Class a welcome revamp. While the basic mechanical formula remains intact -- including U.S.-standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive -- this versatile hauler benefits from fairly comprehensive cosmetic tweaks that add a more distinctive look, whether it's fitted with gasoline or optional diesel engine. Although the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class won't arrive at dealers until August, we recently had a chance to sample both versions during an early test drive through rolling countryside along both sides of the New Jersey/New York border.

Facing up to the family

To give this classy crossover a bolder presence and bring it more closely into alignment with the character of M-B's present SUV set, the R-Class redesign team was charged with executing a comprehensive facelift that changed everything from the A-pillar forward as well as gracing it with a subtle tail tweak. The new nose embodies a number of GLK-Class cues, being taller and more angular with a larger and more upright M-B grille now comprised of three horizontal bars that surround a prominent three-pointed star badge. Framing its new face is a more crisply rendered fascia that swaps round headlamps for more expressively shaped alternatives and gains larger center and outboard air intakes. The latter now carry paired round fog/daytime running lights on R-Class models with the standard halogen headlights or a strip of LEDs when you step up to the optional bi-xenon units.

Out back, the 2011 R-Class reinforces its lower-and-wider theme with a revamped rear fascia set off by new LED/fiber-optic taillamps and a reshaped diffuser that integrates twin chrome tailpipe finishers. As before, both R-Class variants are only available here in the 126.6-inch "long" wheelbase configuration. However, where the R350 4MATIC is fitted with 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in 225/55 tires, the R350 BlueTEC turbodiesel tucks 19-inch alloys with 225/50 rubber into its tastefully flared wheel arches.

A multifaceted multi-tasker

As it has since day one, the R-Class continues to score big points when it comes to pampering passengers. The well-isolated cabin provides standard seating for six in a 2-2-2 layout or an optional 40/20/40 second row. Better still, there's room for at least modestly scaled adults in all three tiers. Versatile to a fault, the R-Class also can quickly and easily be reconfigured to tote two people and up to 85 cubic feet of cargo, when necessary. While moving from M-B Tex to genuine leather upholstery costs extra, real burl walnut doesn't. For 2011, Mercedes has added an extra measure of it as well as revamping the main instrument cluster to give more of a "3D" appearance. Further raising the charm quotient of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class are welcome touches like dual-zone auto climate control, COMAND integrated telematics, cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth and a power moonroof along with a comprehensive suite of safety systems that includes six airbags as well as M-B's Pre-Safe and Post-Safe crash-mitigation kit.

Numerous extras, highlighted by a COMAND-based navigation setup with hard-drive and Gracenote media database, harman/kardon LOGIC7 premium audio, Keyless-Go, dual-screen rear-seat DVD entertainment system, SIRIUS Satellite Radio with Real-Time services and HD Digital Radio, iPod/MP3 adapters, tri-zone rear air conditioning and a panorama glass roof allow for plenty of personalization -- in packages or as stand-alone options. Sadly, the sporty-looking AMG interior package remains a Euro-only extra. Also high on our wish list is an updated navigation system, as the current incarnation with its undersized and graphically so-so display is definitely a full cut below those found in more recently redesigned M-B models.

Born to cruise

Dynamically, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class carries over unchanged -- competent and confident in a crossover sort of way. Go for the gasoline R350 and you get a 268-horsepower/3.6-liter V6 that makes 258 lb.-ft. of torque between 2,400-5,000 rpm and earns 14 mpg/19 mpg EPA city/highway numbers. The 50-state 3.0-liter turbodiesel in the R350 BlueTEC boasts but 201 ponies; however, it serves up a formidable 400 lb.-ft. of peak twist from 1,600-2,400 revs and nets notably superior 18/24 mpg EPA stats. Both engines are paired with a seven-speed automatic transmission that offers a Direct Select gate and 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Quick freaks will likely favor the gasoline six which wins the 0-60 mph sprint by an 8.0 to 8.6 second margin. But save for having to periodically refill its AdBlue tank, the highly refined oil-burner makes a strong case for consideration by anyone more interested in long-distance running.

Although both the Adaptive Damping System (ADSII) and a full Airmatic air suspension can be special ordered, the R-Class chassis formula continues to be based around a conventional coil-spring setup. Rough road surfaces do elicit a bit of impact harshness, however, the overall tuning strikes a very user-friendly compromise in both R-Class variants, whether you're fast-tracking freeways or meandering down a country two-lane.

Pricing won't be announced until sometime closer to its on-sale date, but we're led to believe that prices for the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class will only reflect minimal bump from their current levels. If so, expect to see the R350 4MATIC open at just under $50,000 and the R350 BlueTEC start closer to $53,000.

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