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Why hitch your star to this wagon?

Even though the great French critic Roland Barthes has been dead for nearly 25 years, I bet he still smells like Gitanes.

I miss him. Part anthropologist, part philosopher, part journalist (the part that couldn’t get a good table at a restaurant), Barthes thought hard about ordinary things -- the first serious anatomist of pop culture.

And one of the things he thought hard about was automobiles. His 1957 review of the Citroen DS famously begins, “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

Wow. Geronimo.

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I don’t think about cars nearly as deeply or as well as Barthes, no matter how many tiny cups of coffee I drink. But I do appreciate his search for cars’ deeper meanings, the invisible scaffolding that holds up our opinions about them.

For example, as a car reviewer, I don and doff automotive identities on a weekly basis. But only rarely do I get into an automobile and think, Yes, this fits. This is me. Take a guess. Ferrari? Mini Cooper? Saturn Vue? Come on, I’m serious.

What about a 2004 Mercedes-Benz E500 4Matic station wagon with all-wheel drive? In jade black, with off-white leather interior. Oh, mama. I’m home.

Why does this car turn me on? Is it the most beautiful car on the street? Not even close, though it is handsome, well proportioned and smartly detailed. Is it a hot rod? Not particularly, though its 5.0-liter, 24-valve V-8 puts out an ample 302 horsepower, channeled through a slick-shifting five-speed automatic. A station wagon that goes from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds is nobody’s surrender monkey.

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It’s a pretty tech-intensive piece, with air suspension, all-wheel drive and an alphabet soup of electronic throttle, brake and stability systems. But, of course, there are Volkswagens out there with more PhD man-hours.

The Benz test car, nearly 67 grand, was kitted out with the usual leather-and-wood luxuries, including heated seats (and heated steering wheel), DVD-based navigation system with telematics and audiophile sound system. All of which put the E500 wagon on almost exactly the same footing as a well-equipped Porsche Cayenne S in terms of technology, luxury and value. But I don’t pant after the Porsche SUV. I wonder why?

All-wheel-drive station wagons are highly evolved automobiles. Generally safer, easier to drive, more fuel efficient and considerably more space efficient than sport utility vehicles of comparable wheelbase, AWD wagons are what many SUV buyers want, if they only knew what they wanted.

When readers call to play “What-should-I-buy?” I often ask them in return: Which has more cargo room, the Benz E-wagon, a Lexus RX 330, a BMW X5 or a Range Rover? Answer: the Benz, by a comfortable margin.

But I don’t want a station wagon, they protest, as if I had suggested they be desexed like pet store hamsters. This is the part when I ask them to think harder. The conversation goes downhill from there.

Clearly, the term “station wagon” carries some sort of emotional baggage for people.

The term derives from early automobiles with wagon-like cargo holds, used for runs to and from train stations. It wasn’t until the postwar baby boom that the vehicle type -- with an enclosed cargo hold open to the passenger compartment and built on an extended-wheelbase version of a sedan -- became popular with suburban buyers. From the early 1950s to the mid-'70s, station wagons came in orchidlike variety, from the two-door Chevy Nomad (recently reprised as a GM concept car) to compacts like the Ford Falcon wagon and even a Corvair wagon.

Looming, quite literally, over all were

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mega-wagons like the Ford Country Squire. My girlfriend in high school, one of nine children, arrived in the mornings in a 1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a vehicle that seemingly came with its own time zone. Because station wagons largely disappeared after the first gas crisis hit, these behemoths of the 1970s fixed station wagons’ cultural image as trundling transport for the middle-class breeders.

And this -- in a broad-brush sense -- is what people take station wagons to “mean”: a signal of shameful domestication, a benching of the libido. As a culture we tend to prefer sterility symbols to fertility symbols.

Wagons are making a comeback, of a sort -- just don’t call them wagons. Audi calls its array of wagon-cabin cars “Avant,” which means “before” in French (I’m not sure why, either); Chrysler’s soon-to-be released 300 wagon resorts to the word “Touring,” which is what Europeans call a station wagon body style. And there are any number of “crossovers,” such as the Cadillac SRX and Volvo XC90, which are just all-wheel-drive wagons with elevated H points -- H for “hip,” indicating the relative seat height -- and less-than-optimal centers of gravity.

(At this point Barthes might have connected car buyers’ recent urge for altitude with the court protocols in places like feudal Japan, when it was forbidden to hold one’s head higher than the ruler. Height is almost universally correlated with rank.)

So, again, why do I like the Benz wagon? For me, whose personal life has often resembled the save-my-baby skit with the clown firemen, the station wagon connotes a settled domesticity, peace and stability, devoutly to be wished -- singledom has certainly lost its luster. There is also something deeply appropriate about wagons. They are big enough to enclose my life but not so big as to suggest a fear of leaving something behind, as huge SUVs seem to do. Station wagons are kind of like SUVs after years of therapy.

For what they say about the emotional health of their owners, station wagons are the happiest cars on the road. And I can live with that.

Consider the pickup truck. The top- selling vehicles in America, trucks are purchased in ever-increasing numbers by people who don’t actually need them -- commuters, Lone Star suburbanites, empty Stetsons.

Well, if not for its utility, why buy a pickup? Because pickups as a type have meaning: a rootsy, red-state nobility, a mild scolding of sophistication and effete urbanism, a mood very much in fashion these days. My house may be in the suburbs, the purchase says, but my home is on the farm.

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Naturally, in proper dialectical fashion, cars mean different things, depending on which side of the windshield you are on.

In China, for instance, the rising middle class doesn’t want anything to do with pickups; they remind people of an all-too-recent peasantry. The contrast exposes a faint foolishness under America’s love of pickups: Like the soft-handed Parisians who bought up Millet’s peasant paintings, pickup poseurs would find rural virtue a different thing entirely if they spent a day in the fields.

Barthes loved to flog the petite bourgeoisie with their own illusions.

SUV haters usually indict their owners as inconsiderate and aggressive. But read SUVs another way, not as tanks but as fortresses, inside which their owners huddle for safety. In this light, drivers of huge, scary SUVs appear more frightened than you are. That’s a provocative thought, considering the way SUVs are marketed as fearless and self-reliant vehicles, the Natty Bumppos of the road.

These conventions, these sets of prefabricated meaning, can be as powerful as they are erroneous, a fact illustrated by one word: “minivan.” The “M” word has become so radioactive that few manufacturers dare speak its name in advertising. General Motors recently

launched two vehicles -- the Saturn Relay and the Buick Terraza -- that the company refers to as a “family utility van” and a “premium crossover sport van,” respectively, a semantic rearranging of deck chairs that fails to hide the fact that the vehicles are just that.

What’s wrong with minivans? Nothing. It’s the idea of minivans. To drive one is to feel regarded as somehow sexually demoted, to be reduced to a one-page Kama Sutra.

I’ve had a version of this conversation with dozens of parents:

They: “We want a vehicle that has plenty of room for the kids, easy to drive, not too big, very safe, decent gas mileage.”

Me: “You want a minivan.”

They: “Oh, no! I’m not driving one of those. What about a Lincoln Navigator?”

I encourage people to deconstruct minivans differently. While sports cars may signal your availability, minivans offer tangible proof that, indeed, you have had productive congress, and that you’re probably doing all right, congressionally speaking.

Don’t want to play the cars-define-the-man game? Sorry, you can’t opt out. The most low-key, basic transportation comes with its own constellation of meaning.

Think, for example, of the Larry David character on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” who drives a white Toyota Prius, the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes. Think of the meanings that line up behind this car: a thumb in the eye of SUV culture, a call to arms on fuel economy, a declaration of sexual security. This is modesty of a very ostentatious sort.

The E500 wagon, on the other hand, is ostentation of the regular kind. As I rummage through my mental glove compartment looking for motivation, it occurs to me I might simply be a shameless Europhile. From the early 1960s, European brands offered mid-size wagons that blended sport sedan handling with everyday versatility. These kinds of cars jumped the pond in the 1990s with the BMW 540i Touring and the Audi A4 Avant. Connoisseurs know this. One of my all-time favorite cars is an Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon.

Driving the E500 4Matic wagon is rather like ordering a very good wine of very obscure vintage, and hoping someone notices.

Such are the motives and meanings that drive us to pick this vehicle over that, to write this check bigger than the one before. The E500 4Matic -- the first wagon in Benz’s U.S. lineup that combines a V-8 with all-wheel drive -- is a terrific machine but not without its downsides. Its fuel economy -- 16 miles per gallon city, 22 highway -- isn’t anything to write home about. Hence the $1,300 gas guzzler tax. Mercedes’ big diesel engines will certainly improve matters when they become available next year.

I also look forward to Mercedes’ next generation of climate controls. The little plastic dials on there now look borrowed from transistor radios made in postwar Japan.

Nobody’s perfect. I like the way this car makes me feel. The Benz wagon says what it means and means what I say.

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mercedes-Benz E500 wagon

Length: 190.3 inches

Wheelbase: 112.4 inches

Powertrain: 5.0-liter, 24-valve V-8 with variable valve timing, five-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 302 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 339 pound-feet at 2,700 to 4,250 rpm

Cargo capacity: 68.9 cubic feet (with rear seats folded)

Fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city; 22 mpg highway

Acceleration: Zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds

Base price: $59,950

Price, as tested: $66,760 (including $720 destination and delivery charge and $1,300 gas guzzler tax)

Final thoughts: Security blanket

Source: Mercedes-Benz


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