The Mercedes-Benz R-Class was a head-scratcher when it bowed in early 2005 at that year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The debut venue was appropriate enough, since Mercedes designed the R-Class mostly for American consumers, and it said it would build the
bloated wagon crossover/SUV/minivan at its assembly plant near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The R-Class peaked in its first model year, in part because it looked a lot like the wholly unrelated Chrysler Pacifica, which was available for about half the price. A base R350 ran just shy of $49,000 when new, though most certainly had a few options. A V8-powered R500 could top $70,000 with options such as the AMG Sport Package, a rear-seat DVD player and massaging front seats. Chrysler charged less than $40,000 for its Pacifica.
When AMG massaged the R-Class to create the R63, it either represented the model’s peak or the automaker’s in-house tuner bottoming out, depending on how you look at it. The 507-horsepower engine gave the R63 thrilling acceleration, but it found few buyers. Fewer than 200 were sold in the US, and just one is currently listed on Autotrader.
While the R-Class flopped both here and in Europe, where it was available in a shorter wheelbase configuration, it arrived at just the right time in China. The big Benz’s combination of a prestige German nameplate and acres of interior room made it a popular choice among well-to-do Chinese families. It’s worth remembering that private vehicle ownership is a relatively new concept in China, so the R-Class and other vans don’t suffer the unappealing image they do in the US.
The R-Class was so popular in China that Mercedes-Benz found itself needing more space to build vehicles than it had at Tuscaloosa. Enter AM General, a company based in South Bend, Indiana that was formed when American Motors — yes, the company that made the Gremlin — needed a place to build off-road trucks for the military. AM General would eventually secure a major contract for the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, which it builds to this day in Mishawaka, Indiana, near South Bend.
Why is this important? Because Mercedes-Benz contracted AM General to build two years’ worth of R-Classes in Mishawaka as well. Production began in 2015 and ran through late 2017, and every single R-Class built in the Hoosier State was earmarked for China. Nearly all of them were painted black, too.
It’s hard to imagine an American factory building a German product solely for Chinese consumption, but it happened. Find a Mercedes-Benz R-Class for sale