March 13, 2008

Red rocks

The small Mercedes shines in a Southwest desert scramble

DESERT PATROL: Exploring Joshua Tree in Mercedes' C350.

DESERT PATROL: Exploring Joshua Tree in Mercedes' C350.

Sidling up to the bright red C350 sedan that Mercedes lent me for a trip through the desert from Scottsdale to San Diego, I got a kind of nostalgic charge. A sensible tan station wagon -- with fake wood on the sides -- was my ride during my formative driving years, but my grandfather let me borrow his deep-maroon Benz 300D turbo for special occasions.

He drove a new Mercedes every year from the time I was 5, and I grew up spilling things on those indestructible MB-Tex seats. So watching Mercedes' C-Class cars evolve through the late 1990s and early 2000s was like seeing Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform: vaguely familiar, but disappointingly average.

I really wanted Mercedes to make a medium-size sedan I could like again.

The new-for-2008 C350is a good start, at least in terms of parking-lot presence. The engine is a carry-over, but the last generation's anonymous bodywork has been replaced with ground effects, chrome grille slats, black mesh and a salad-plate-size three-pointed star badge. There's no mistaking it for anything else, even if yours doesn't have 18-inch wheels and the fantastic, retina-searing red paint job.

I enlisted my brother as a co-pilot for a two-leg jaunt: a 300-mile run down I-10 from Scottsdale to Palm Springs for the end of the Bob Hope Classic, and then a 175-mile trip through the Santa Ana mountains to La Jolla for an early-week visit to the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, the next event on the PGA Tour schedule (and the site of the U.S. Open June 12-15). We wanted to see how the C350 handled the high desert -- and the scrutiny that comes from competing in the world's toughest car class. Forty-five grand buys you some awfully nice midsize BMW, Audi or Infiniti merchandise.

Because we combine for more than 13 feet and 500 pounds of human cargo, my brother and I go through the same ritual before getting into any car: Crank the seat as far back as it will go, then tilt the steering wheel to get as much thigh room as possible. The C350 has plenty of space -- enough for us to sit next to each other without needing Mom to draw an imaginary line -- but it comes with a catch. The deep footwells make it easy for even a 6-feet-8 guy to get comfortable, but require supple hamstrings when getting in and out. If you're bringing Britney Spears with you, make sure she's wearing something, um, demure.

Pushing through the bends in Joshua Tree National Park, across the Arizona-California border, the 268-horsepower C350 isn't as athletic as a BMW or Infiniti, but it's nimble enough for most people who will drive it. What sets it apart is the sensible, elegant navigation and entertainment system -- especially because we didn't know our exact route (or where to get gas ... don't ask). Touch a button on the steering wheel and simply say the address of the place you want to go. The pop-up screen even shows you when to change lanes. If you aren't feeling chatty, a knob at the base of the armrest controls the nav and radio manually. Sirius satellite radio comes standard, but you can download 1,000 songs into a hard drive in the radio's brain if 130 channels aren't enough.

After punching up a playlist of mediocre pop music, we left Palm Springs for the coast on Route 74 -- the Palms to Pines Highway. Starting below sea level on the floor of the Coachella Valley, 74 rises more than 6,000 feet into the mountains on a series of gnarly switchbacks. Normally it's fun to chirp the tires and scare the senior citizens through the twists. But it was actually snowing at the top of the pass, so we rooted for the C350's traction control to keep us from falling to our doom. At least the view through the hole in the guardrail would have been picturesque.

We drove west to Carlsbad and the best route into San Diego, from the north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Carslbad is a golf mecca: The headquarters for Callaway and TaylorMade jostle for space in the same office park, and two world-class golf resorts are just down the street. La Costa Resort and Spa, the former site of the Accenture Match Play, is coming off a $140 million renovation, or you could slum it with a $725-per-night golf and spa package at the Four Seasons Aviara.

Torrey Pines (see "Touring Torrey," below) is just south of Carlsbad, right off the PCH. You can watch the Buick Invitational and the U.S. Open on television, but the only way to get the crazy-good fish tacos at Las Olas is to stop at the beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. It's the yogurt sauce that does it. Just don't spill any on the upholstery.

Photo By J.D. Cuban

TOURING TORREY

• Torrey Pines is a 36-hole public facility, with preferred tee times (and green fees) for San Diego County residents. Visitors can reserve tee times up to 90 days in advance at 877-581-7171. The green fee for the South Course, where the U.S. Open will be played in June, is $145.

• Full-week badges for the U.S. Open are selling for $480 and up on websites like stubhub.com.

• The Buick Invitational is played on Torrey's South and North courses in late January. You can buy printable tickets (ranging from $20 for a day to $110 for the week) online at buickinvitational.com.

• Rooms at the ultra-exclusive Lodge at Torrey Pines, on site, start at $400 and go fast. There's a Hilton next door to the course, and rates there start at $289.