Field owners live better than field hands.
That epiphany came to me during a drive of the 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class Grand Sports Tourer, a name as imposing as some of the palaces occupying this landscape of wealth.
Workers tending the grounds of those estates refer to them as "property." Likewise, they've reduced the haughty nomenclature of the R-Class to "minivan" and "wagon," as in "looks like a minivan to me."
But neither the sprawling mansions nor the R-Class sport-utility wagons are made for workers. Instead, they are meant to house and transport bosses, owners and other rich people Mercedes-Benz's marketers call "late-forming affluent families" and "socialite empty-nesters."
I dined in the $28 million home of one of those "empty-nesters," the owner of an empire of nearby lettuce fields, the evening before setting out on a 300-mile trip in the R-Class models. The idea was to get a feel for what some Mercedes-Benz salespeople say is the "typical lifestyle" of an R-Class client. It felt so good, I didn't want to leave.
But I get paid to drive and write. So, I drove. And, as I've done before, even with the assistance of an advanced electronic navigation system, I got lost on the next day's journey. I am directionally challenged. One of the reasons I spend so much time on the road is that I never know where I'm going.
My sideways tour took me through many of the region's lettuce fields and vineyards. From the leathered, air-conditioned luxury of the 268-horsepower, V-6 R350, I saw legions of immigrants toiling in the noonday heat.
They worked hard. They planted, lifted, hauled and sweated. And when their work was done at about 4 p.m., many of them -- men and women -- boarded white buses that pulled trailers carrying two or three mint-green field latrines.
I followed the buses. The field hands disembarked at dusty park-and-ride stops where they boarded their own vehicles -- aging Dodge and Chrysler minivans, some Ford trucks, and a much-used Volkswagen Dasher sedan. I followed the workers' caravan -- an odd yacht amidst a flotilla of dinghies.
The workers drove home to cabins -- small places with few rooms housing large families. That is when it hit me: It is much better to be a field owner than it is to be a field hand.
It was an empirical observation made without intent or pretense of moral judgment. Living in a $28 million, 11-bathroom mansion beats living in a crowded four-room cabin, one small bathroom included. Driving a splendiferous Mercedes-Benz R-Class wagon, even the least expensive ($48,000) version of the R350, is discernibly better than chugging along the road in a played-out Chrysler minivan.
It is the way of the world. The rich get richer. The poor work harder; and, in the matter of R-Class accommodations, the rich get more space.
Stretching 203 inches, the R-Class is longer than one of its biggest competitors, the Cadillac Escalade (198.9 inches long); and it is 4.5 inches shorter than the gargantuan Lincoln Navigator (207.5 inches long). Yet, the R-Class has more comfortable and usable interior space than either of its two big rivals. The R-class has real seating for six adults, including those in the third row.
Standard equipment is plentiful in both the R350 and the 302-horsepower R500 V-8. Both come with all-wheel-drive and seven-speed automatic transmissions.
That's right. There are seven gears, all working to send maximum power to the drive wheels with minimum use of gasoline (in the United States) and super-low-sulfur diesel fuel (in the diesel-powered R320 models that will be sold in Europe).
Multiple power outlets allow passengers to bring along their iPods, laptops and other portable electronic accouterment.
If that is not enough, Mercedes-Benz is offering R-Class buyers a long list of options, including a rear-seat entertainment package featuring two high-definition video screens mounted behind the front-seat headrests, a Teleaid emergency communications system, DVD navigation, a huge panoramic glass roof, a power-operated rear hatch, and a climate-control system that simultaneously sets three temperatures for three separate zones within the passenger cabin. The options will cost more money -- enough to boost the price of the R500, for example, up to $70,000. But that does not matter here. The "R" in R-Class stands for "rich."