By Marc Stengel, Tue, 14 Mar 2006 08:00:00 PDT
A bit bigger about the middle. Not quite so light on the feet anymore. A little portly perhaps, but by all means refined, most definitely distinguished. As goes the baby boomer, so goes the baby boomer's automobile. The sportwagon has come of age, it seems, providing middle-age boomers with a trendy excuse for ditching the minivan without sacrificing versatility, meanwhile injecting a dose of youthful zest into gradually hardening arteries
Within a two-week span, no fewer than three comparably equipped, European-born 2006 sportwagons found their way to my doorstep. The Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon, BMW 530xi Sport Wagon and Volvo V70 R all share similar design parameters: each is a five-seater, all-wheel-drive, sport-tuned version of a sibling sedan. All three bear more-or-less comparable lists of standard and optional features. If it is misleading to say they are strikingly different in personality, I can at least report that there are subtle variations to take into account before deciding which of this trio best epitomizes a given driver's sense of his or her station-in life and on the road. 2006 Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon
Clearly, it is Jaguar's intent to lure customers to its new station wagon by combining luxury, sportiness and legendary mystique. The '06 Sportwagon is based upon Jag's X-Type sedan series, as a cursory glance will reveal. Whereas to some, the X-Type sedan looks a bit puny under the mantle of Jaguar's legendary reputation, the bulkier dimensions of the wagon version actually enhance the appearance of muscularity. It is an unusual-looking car, but certainly no less so than, say, the extraordinarily odd E-Type 2+2 from the '60s. Odd, eye-catching cars are a particular Jaguar forte, it must be said. Underhood is a 3.0-liter twin-cam V6 whose variable valve timing helps deliver 227 horsepower and 206 foot-pounds of torque. This is less output than either of the other two wagons treated here, but the Jaguar by no means suffers from sluggishness. This is a very responsive all-wheel-drive powertrain; and it combines with crisp suspension tuning and a superb steering feel to give Jag's sportwagon an enjoyable personality.
Jaguar interiors are iconic, and the Sportwagon's is true to the tradition; but it's a bit of a caricature just the same. The leather and burl and chrome are all there, but the overall sensation is that of a miniaturized doll house interior. Perhaps this is the result of a cargo hold dominating the rear. With the rear seat in use, this hold measures 24 cubic feet. Folding both split seatbacks doubles this to 50 cubic feet. Moreover, this is boxy, usable space. Mileage is the Sportwagon's Achille's heel. Using premium, it rates only 17 mpg/city, 23 highway. The 3.0-liter BMW 530xi does significantly better; then again it costs almost $20,000 more than this $43,940 Jaguar (as-tested). Bargains are what you make of them, I suppose.
The Jaguar X-Type is comparable to BMW's 3-Series platform, so in one sense, BMW's 5-Series wagon is in a size-and price-class larger. That's true with regard to the 33.6 cubic foot cargo hold behind the rear seats. (This expands to 58 cubes with the seats folded.) As for price, at $61,265 (as-tested) the 530xi is in a league of this own. It deserves to be there. This is a very technically sophisticated car and a very conspicuously luxurious one to boot. Proprietary VANOS variable valve timing extracts 255 hp from the 3.0-liter inline-six, and there are 220 foot-pounds of maximum torque at the driver's disposal. Acceleration is strong, velvety smooth and relentless. The Sport Wagon whisks to speed as if by magic carpet
A wonderfully silky six-speed automatic transmission matches the powerband to the road conditions, and all-wheel-drive combines sporty performance in fair weather with reassuring traction on rain, snow and ice. Mileage is the best of the three reported here: 20 mpg/city, 27/highway. Steering, on the other hand, is a bit over-firm, particularly at slow speeds.
My peeves are miiguous: I don't care for the iDrive system of controlling radio, climate and other functions via a "mouse-knob"; and I don't think BMW does well by its customers to insist they adopt counterintuitive eccentricity just to find a radio station. Ditto with the Steptronic manual shift pattern. BMW's forward-downshift, rearward-upshift system is opposite that of virtually the entire rest of the automotive world. Dare to be different, you say? I say, dare to go with the flow from time to time. Jeez!
Volvo's take on the station wagon is in some ways the complement of its rivals'. Jaguar and BMW are looking to improve versatility. Volvo is out to increase frivolity. Why otherwise stuff a high-pressure-turbocharged, 300-hp motor into an innocuous station wagon?
The V70 R is a coy one, though. That discreet little lip spoiler over the rear window is almost the only giveaway that here is a 5.4-second scorcher in zero-to-60 sprints. With "Four-C" active suspension, the "R-Wagon" reads the road and adapts itself automatically to minute changes in surface and traction conditions. Moreover, suspension tuning can be adjusted from mild to wild to satisfy a variety of sporty and comfy appetites.
R-Wagon remains a worker bee, however. It has the best cargo hold of the bunch: 37 to 71 cubic feet. And as far as super-sport station wagons are concerned-of which this and the $38,000 Dodge Magnum SRT-8 are perhaps the only pure representatives-its price is competitive: $39,545, base/$44,885, as-tested. For the work-hard, play-hard aficionado, the V70 R-Wagon is a fair choice. But don't you ever just want to relax sometimes?
4-door, 5-pass.; 3.0-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt; AWD, 5-sp. auto w/ J-Shift; 227 hp/206 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 23 mpg/hwy w/ premium; cargo: 24-50 cu. ft.; std. equipment: four-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD-in-dash audio, 17-in. wheels, 60/40 rear seat, front/side/head airbags, moonroof; base price: $36,330 as-tested: $43,940 2006 BMW 530xi Sport Wagon
4-door, 5-pass.; 3.0-liter DOHC inline-6 w/ vvt; AWD, 6-sp. auto w/ Steptronic; 255 hp/220 ft.-lbs.; 20 mpg/city, 27 mpg/hwy w/ premium; cargo: 33.6-58 cu. ft.; std. equipment: four-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD-in-dash audio, 17-in. wheels, 60/40 rear seat, front/side/head airbags, moonroof; base price: $51,100 as-tested: $61,265
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.5-liter DOHC turbocharged inline-5 w/ vvt; AWD, 6-sp. auto w/ Geartronic; 300 hp/295 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy w/ premium; cargo: 37.4-71 cu. ft.; std. equipment: four-wheel "Four-C" active suspension & ABS disc brakes, auto HVAC, AM/FM/CD-in-dash audio, 17-in. wheels, 60/40 rear seat, front/side/head airbags; base price: $39,545 as-tested: $44,88