On The Road

Getting it right: Mercedes-Benz R500 fills niche between sport utility and station wagon

The Mercedes R500 performs with almost the verve of a sportscar while offering the interior spaciousness of a minivan.

The biggest age group in history - the baby boomers, born 1945 through 1964 - is getting older. This shocking news was the core of a recent presentation to investment managers by a Ford Motor Co. market analyst.

Based on this insightful revelation, the Ford exec predicted that the sport-utility vehicle had seen its days of glory and is about to become just another niche vehicle. Unlike many pundits, he argued that the recent run-up in fuel prices is simply hastening the inevitable. The real explanation for the recent drop in sport-utility sales, he said, and the indication that SUV sales will continue to decline, is the aging of the baby-boom generation.

We baby boomers (I was born in 1945) have seen our kids leave the nest, which means no more Saturdays spent chauffeuring soccer teams. We are more likely to be looking forward to an interesting retirement seminar on a luxury cruise this winter than to a week attacking black diamond runs at a ski resort in the Sierra.

Having figured this out, Ford is expanding its lines of car-based crossover vehicles like the Ford Escape and has recently introduced the Ford 500, just the rightsized sedan for the aging boomer who's tired of climbing up and into an SUV.

Arriving at the same conclusion, Mercedes-Benz has just introduced the R500, not a sport-utility and not a station wagon but somewhere in between. This month, we had the chance to drive the new R500 as well as the big ML500 SUV. Since we've also recently driven the current generation of Mercedes luxury station wagon, we can compare the three - all equipped with the same 5-liter V8 engine - and do some trend-spotting of our own.

On the outside, the Mercedes R500 looks like one of the new crossovers, with the roof forming a sleek, flowing curve from front to rear, echoed by a similar curve from headlights to taillights.

The interior, with its two rows of captain's chairs and folding third row of smaller seats, looks like a minivan, though one with the luxury touches Mercedes is so good at. Surprisingly, the R500 is longer and wider than a full-size sport-ute (the R500 is actually longer than a Cadillac Escalade), but it is a full 6 inches shorter, with the height reduction coming between the ground and the step-over door sills.

On the road, the R500 offers such satisfying performance that it is almost sportscar caliber, rather than the plain vanilla ride of a minivan. We discovered this on a ride to Livermore over the long Thanksgiving weekend to sample some of the offerings of Page Mill Winery (www.pagemillwinery.com). Sadly, Page Mill Winery has moved from its original Los Altos Hills home to the Livermore Valley, a wine-growing region of emerging importance and the location of a number of pleasant wineries. Page Mill is now hosting its first tastings in its new facilities on Livermore Road near Concannon Road.

This newest Mercedes, with its 302-horsepower V8 coupled with a seven-speed automatic transmission, always seems to be in exactly the right gear. Transitions are smooth and seamless, and the car exhibits aplomb whether it is quietly cruising at 70-plus up I-680, accelerating to 90 to get clear of a truck on a lane merge or pulling the ascending curves of Highway 84 before the road drops into the Livermore Valley.

Speed-adjusted power steering adds to the smooth feeling of this car. It's easy to maneuver in parking lots, responsive on medium-speed cornering and stable at highway speeds. Even the throttle and brake response was satisfying, contributing to passenger comfort while maintaining driver confidence. Add the standard full-time, all-wheel drive, and you've got a car that actually could handle a ski vacation if sea cruises get boring.

The interior is exceptionally spacious, not surprising given the car's length and width, and the exceptionally long rear doors, which make it easy for passengers to get in and out. Contributing to the feeling of spaciousness, the R500 has an optional panoramic sunroof, extending over the rear seats, shielded by electrically sliding front and rear covers.

The far-back seats aren't exceptionally generous, but at least the middle seats tilt forward, making it easy for the grandkids to get in and out. With the third-row seats up, luggage room is equal to most midsize sedans, but with the middle and rear seats folded, the R500 actually has more cargo room than the full-sized ML500 SUV.

We found almost nothing to criticize in the R500. The only quibbles were with the sideview mirrors that are smaller than we'd like, especially with the tall headrests on the second row seats obstructing the view from the rear-view mirror. Also, the CD player is in the glove compartment and can't be reached from the driver's seat, though the glove compartment also has an iPod holder and plug, so maybe that's not too bad.

By contrast, our week with the Mercedes ML500 was disappointing. There was a variety of things to criticize, starting with those same dinky rear-view mirrors - annoying on the R500 but downright dangerous on the larger SUV with its hulking blind spots in the rear.

In fact, everything about the ML500 felt heavy, starting with the stubbornly hard feeling of the power steering and including the general feeling of bulk in the way the vehicle handled. Getting in and out of the high passenger compartment requires a tall step up or a leap down, unless you use the optional running boards for assistance. About the only thing we did find to praise was the elegant interior, which would have done justice to a top-of-the-line executive jet.

Our experience a year ago with the E500 station wagon had been much more positive. The interior was luxurious, the controls and handling responsive enough to challenge sports cars on back roads and the styling graceful and elegant.

However, as a people hauler, the E500 wagon couldn't really live up to its claim of being a seven-passenger vehicle. Two adults take up most of the room in the backseat, and the rear-facing folding seats accessible through the rear hatch wouldn't handle much more than a pair of 4-year-olds. Nevertheless, with the third row folded down, there was space for a week's worth of luggage for a Mendocino trip, with room left over for two cases of wine.

All in all, we think that after two efforts more suitable to previous decades' market preferences, Mercedes is ready for the coming decade with the R500. This is fortunate, since driving the R500 underscores the so-last-century feeling of driving an SUV or station wagon. The R500 is easy to get in and out of, it's the perfect size to handle a variety of hauling tasks, and still can haul … well, you know … with the best of them. This is all good for a generation that is admitting it has different needs than it did a decade or two ago, but isn't yet ready to give up driving fun.

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