Not Your Mother's Station Wagon

The new generation can take on the best in SUVs

Tired of the jiggly, bouncy ride, that tipsy-turvy feeling when you speed around corners, or the $50 fill-ups? A new generation of station wagons out there can do almost everything your sport-utility vehicle can, but with style and comfort while guzzling less gas. The exception: Most (but not all) do not have the ground clearance needed for true off-roading. But hey, how much of that do you really do?

These are not your mother's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, Ford Country Squire, or Chrysler Town & Country, with their cavernous spaces and boat-like rides. They're smaller and sportier, and they're not even called station wagons anymore. Mostly, their manufacturers call them sport wagons, or sometimes sport-utility wagons, or just wagons. Or they don't call them anything, layering on lots of dark plastic body moulding around the base--ostensibly to protect against gravel dings--and jacking up the suspension a bit in hopes that they'll pass as SUVs. The Subaru Outback--really a Subaru Legacy wagon in macho drag--is the pioneer here, although Volvo and Audi have picked up on the trend as well, with their high-end Cross Country and Allroad Quattro models.

I tried out a half-dozen wagons, ranging in price from around $25,000 to nearly $50,000. Aside from Japan's Subaru, whose Legacy wagon, including the Outback variations, is the top-selling wagon in the U.S., the best selection these days comes from Europe. European carmakers, such as Volvo (VOLVY ), Saab (SAABF ), Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, never stopped making wagons--mostly because that's what sells in their home market instead of SUVs.

My favorite? The Volkswagen Passat GLX 4Motion. Its $33,925 price tag gets you more than you'd get in a similarly priced SUV, including all-wheel drive (the 4Motion part), antilock brakes, and a very peppy Audi 190-horsepower, V6 engine. Of all the wagons I drove, this seemed to be the best combination of sport and space, and with plenty of luxury amenities to boot. Other versions of the Passat wagon start at $23,000. But in this top-of-the-line model, leather seats, wood trim, and a sunroof are standard equipment. You also don't pay extra for front and side airbags and inflatable curtains that drop down to protect all passengers against head injuries in side collisions. Wagons from Volvo, BMW, Audi, and Mercedes also have this important safety feature, one you won't get in an SUV.

No auto maker is more associated with station wagons than Volvo, the quintessential family-car company. I drove a pair of them, the entry-level V40, which starts at $25,075, and the $35,475 V70 XC (for Cross Country), a bigger all-wheel-drive wagon.

The compact V40 comes only with a four-cylinder, 160-hp engine, but it's turbocharged for more than enough get-up-and-go. It's fuel-efficient as well, boasting an amazing 32 miles per gallon on the highway. (Let's see your SUV do that.) But the back seat is a tight squeeze for three passengers, and the rear cargo area is not much bigger than a car trunk. It's nicely outfitted, though, with cargo nets and a seat-beltlike luggage strap to keep everything in place.

The V70 Cross Country has been made bigger and longer than the usual V70 wagon and dressed up to look more like an SUV. It has unpainted plastic cladding surrounding the nose, up and over the wheels, and back to the rear bumper. A jacked-up suspension gives it 8.2 inches of ground clearance--more than the Ford Explorer, not to mention such tamer sport-utes as the BMW X5 and Lexus RX 300. If that's your thing, it will climb bumpy hillsides and navigate rutted river beds.

It's pricey, too, but who can resist the gorgeous baseball-stitched leather seats? Those, and the touring package--with trip computer, CD player, and a rearview mirror that dims automatically when it detects headlights behind you--will push the tab to over $40,000. For that price, though, you should get real wood trim, like Volkswagen (VLKAY ), rather than Volvo's shiny plastic imitation.

CARGO SPACE. The rear seat is especially versatile. It's split 40/20/40. You can flip down the center as an armrest or for a pass-through from the cargo area for long items, such as skis. Or remove the center cushions entirely, and install a mini-fridge--a $295 option. One problem: I borrowed a brand-new V70 XC, and within a week the fuel gauge and rear washer/wiper had stopped working.

Audi's response to the Cross Country is its own SUV wannabe, the Allroad. It starts at $42,450, but options will quickly take it to 50 grand. The Allroad's trick? You can select its height in four settings--from a sporty 5.2 in. off the ground to a serious 8.2 in. My advice? If you don't need the limited off-road capability that more ground clearance gives you, go with the conventional wagons, either the Volvo V70 or Audi A6 Avant. You'll save a considerable amount of cash and get a better ride, besides.

There are other good choices in wagons. One option for drivers who don't need all the space of a typical station wagon is BMW's 325xi sport wagon, the all-wheel-drive wagon version of the company's popular 3-series sport sedan. With a six-cylinder engine that puts out 184 hp, it's really more sport than wagon: Cargo space is even smaller than the V40 Volvo's. One nice feature: The rear window opens separately from the tailgate, which makes it easier to drop small packages into the back. Despite the smallish size, however, this is not a budget choice. The 325xi starts at $31,795, and the standard equipment is meager. Options can quickly drive the price as high as $40,000.

For the sake of comparison, I tried out a plain-vanilla Subaru Legacy GT, nicely equipped and a comparative bargain at $25,536, though such luxury amenities as leather seats aren't offered. The drive-off pinpointed two weaknesses of the European competition: In general, radio and ventilation controls are an unorganized maze of tiny buttons. It's worse at night, when they all light up like a Christmas tree. And the Europeans still haven't figured out how to make a decent cup holder.

The biggest wagon on the road today is the Mercedes-Benz E320 4matic wagon. At about $52,000, it's also about the most expensive. At $17,000, the economy pick is the Ford Focus which, because of its height, has almost as much storage space behind the rear seats as the larger Volkswagen Passat.

And if the current lineup doesn't give you enough choice, hold on. No fewer than eight new wagons will hit the U.S. market this year, including a Mercedes C-Class in the $40,000 range and a wagon version of Toyota's Lexus IS 300, called the IS 300 SportCross. Both are designed to go up against BMW's 3-series luxury sport wagons.

Also en route are wagon versions of the Volkswagen Jetta, Kia Rio, and Mazda Protegé. All are designed to appeal to hipper, younger drivers who want something eco-friendly, out of the mainstream, and a lot more fun to drive. In short, drivers who wouldn't be caught dead in anything as mass-market and stodgy as their parents' SUV.

By Larry Armstrong

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