Not Your Mother's Station Wagon

I was cruising down the expressway, coffee cup in one hand, steering wheel in the other, when flashing red lights appeared in my rear-view. Usually, I lumber to work in a '94 Chevy Blazer sport-utility vehicle. But today, I'm hurtling along at 85 mph in a sleek, green Audi A4 Avant station wagon. Its handling is so smooth I didn't know I was speeding. When I say that to the annoyed cop, he tells me to act my age and lets me go without a ticket.

Who knows whether the officer was just in a good mood that morning, or simply wanted a close-up look at my wagon. It wouldn't have surprised me if it was the latter. The all-wheel-drive A4 Avant, along with the Volvo V70 and Subaru Outback, are ushering in a new age for the station wagon. Unlike bulky old Country Squires, these new wagons are drivers' cars that borrow features from SUVs, such as all-wheel-drive transmissions. In fact, the new wagons are an ideal respite for those growing weary of SUVs. The wagons offer the SUVs' generous cargo room and secure handling in adverse conditions. But they omit the rugged, jouncy ride. Since the wagons are lower to the ground, children don't need a step stool or a boost to climb in.

Of the three wagons I drove, Audi's wins in panache. The A4 Avant keeps the sculptured look of the popular A4 sedan. Its taut ride and handling lose no curve-hugging powers in the translation to station wagon. Much of that is thanks to Audi's outstanding Quattro all-wheel-drive system, which electronically sends extra torque to the wheels that need it in slippery conditions. Like other Audis, the A4 Avant is reasonable for a luxury car. With Quattro, the A4 Avant starts at $31,540 with a five-speed manual transmission. For an additional $1,075, you get a five-speed automatic. Powering the A4 Avant is a 2.8-liter V6 that kicks out 190 horsepower.

The Audi's biggest drawback is its cramped back seat. My six-year-old complained of its size. For adults, a long ride in back could be excruciating. A larger wagon from Audi, the A6 Avant, is due this summer. There's no space crunch in the Volvo V70 XC (for cross country). Designed with high ground clearance for off-road exploring, this wagon is one of the most commodious. Adults have room to stretch out in the car's plush leather seats, front and rear. As always, Volvo's safety features are first-rate, with standar4d front and side air bags and lap-and-shoulder belts for all three rear passengers. (The Audi also comes with these features.)

But the V70 XC is no lumbering box on wheels. Its 190-horsepower, five-cylinder engine has a turbocharger that gave it the best acceleration among the wagons I drove. While it doesn't handle with the A4's precision, the V70's ride is solid and secure, thanks to an all-wheel-drive transmission mated to a traction-control system. The V70 XC is priced in the middle of the luxury pack, starting at $37,960--less than BMW and Mercedes wagons but more than Audi's. A V70 all-wheel-drive wagon, without the XC off-road upgrade, starts at $34,995.

ROOMY. The Subaru Outback blazed the trail for all-wheel-drive wagons when it took the market by storm two years ago. It still provides the best value, with sticker prices starting at $22,990 and topping out at $27,090. The Outback's four-cylinder, 165-horsepower engine is no match for those in the Audi or Volvo. Its ride doesn't come up to that of the Europeans, either. But for functionality, the Outback delivers with a roomy cargo area and a solid all-wheel-drive system.

These sleek and sporty wagons may one day be as ubiquitous as SUVs. For now, watch it on the road. With their superior comfort and handling, they're a pleasure to drive--almost too much of one, as I found out.

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