Sleek, Chic Station Wagons?

Say "station wagon," and most driving enthusiasts stifle a yawn. But several auto makers hope to rehabilitate the cars' ho-hum reputation with a nimbler breed: sport wagons. These vehicles meld the utility of large cargo space with the driving fun of a road-hugging sport sedan.

Sport wagons come in an ever-growing array of sizes and prices. The four models I drove cover the field pretty well. Two small wagons, the $12,195 Saturn SW2 and the $22,650 Subaru Legacy Touring Wagon, are great for active single folks and small families. The midsize BMW Touring wagon, which starts at $39,800, and the $38,600 Audi 100CS Quattro Wagon are geared more toward larger families who want a spiffier alternative to a minivan.

For sheer driving fun, the two smaller wagons stand out. Subaru's 160-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and standard automatic transmission launch the car with vigor. It romps to 60 miles per hour in just over 8 seconds--the fastest in the pack. And with full-time all-wheel-drive, it's also the most agile, even on slick pavement. In emergency maneuvers, the car inspires confidence with stable handling.

The Saturn, though less gutsy than the Subaru, still hits 60 mph in 6.5 seconds or so with a manual transmission. Its 123-horsepower four-cylinder gets raucous as it winds up, however. The front-drive Saturn has good road manners, too. It feels light and responsive through hard corners, but if you push too far, the front end begins to plow ahead. In fact, this is the one wagon whose performance closely matches that of its sedan sibling, thanks to a plastic roof that adds just 55 pounds to the car's weight.

The midsize wagons are tamer performers. The BMW, with a 189-horsepower six-cylinder and an automatic transmission, takes a more leisurely 10.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. That's nearly a second slower than the 525i sedan it's based on, largely because the wagon weighs 200 pounds more. Routine handling is nimble for a car this big. But in sudden maneuvers such as a panic lane change, the wagon's rear end wags.

BIG STRETCH. The Audi is the heaviest of the bunch. Its extra heft, plus the drag of a full-time four-wheel-drive system, exacts a toll in acceleration: Zero to 60 takes 11 seconds. But what it lacks in straight-line oomph, the Audi makes up for in the turns. As with the Subaru, four-wheel-drive makes the car corner as if it were on steel rails. That stability is a real advantage in snowy climates. The downside: The ride suffers a bit.

What does the extra cash buy on the bigger wagons? More room, comfort, and gadgets. The Audi and BMW accommodate about 10 more cubic feet of cargo than their smaller brethren. And they have extra headroom and legroom, while the Saturn and Subaru can feel cramped for people over 6 feet tall--especially in the backseat. You can also comfortably fit three adults in the rear of the larger wagons, which you can't in the compacts. The Audi even has a small folding bench seat in the back that's suitable for three children.

The BMW boasts a few slick features the other wagons lack. For instance, the Touring's big sunroof opens over both the front and rear seats. The only drawback is wind noise when the front is fully open. Also, you can get access to the rear either by opening the window glass or by raising the entire liftgate to accommodate large items.

Safety features abound in these wagons. All have standard driver's side air bags; the Audi has an optional passenger bag. Unfortunately, both the Subaru and Saturn still have those annoying motorized seat belts; BMW and Audi use manual belts. Antilock brakes are standard on all but the Saturn, where they are a $600 option. The BMW even automatically turns on interior lights and unlocks the doors after a collision, to make it easier for passengers to exit.

Perhaps most important, at least for some people: These cars' beefier tires, sporty wheels, and sleek lines give them a real attitude. They certainly stand out from the crowd of minivans packing the streets of suburbia these days.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.