A generation ago "entry-level luxury sport wagon" would have been some kind of crazy double oxymoron. Station wagons were what Mom drove to pick up the kids, not a joyride, and the words "entry level" wouldn't be uttered in the same breath as "luxury." But thanks to the hypersegmentation of today's car market, entry-level luxury sport wagons are a real category, targeting a specific buyer.
Who is that buyer? A youngish guy who'll pay a reasonable premium for sporty performance and prestige, and who wants enough space to haul around either kids or sports gear. We looked at some of the category's latest entries, the redesigned 2005 Subaru Outback and new Volvo V50, along with old standbys from BMW and Audi.
Volvo V50 T5
This Volvo actually shares a platform with the Mazda 3 sedan (both brands are under Ford's aegis). To justify the $10,000 premium, Volvo has piled on the features, such as a whiplash protection system and traction control, plus a five-cylinder turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission for street cred.
The V50 is also one of the best-looking entries in this category, with an extremely long, lean appearance. Inside, the high window line can create a bit of a claustrophobic feeling, but the elegant Scandinavian interior makes up for it. Take the ethereal center stack of stereo and climate controls, mounted on a thin panel that floats in front of the dashboard.
But the Volvo is not an enthusiast's car. True, you won't lack for power, but the steering is quite a bit softer than on the other three cars. Brakes are also mushier than they should be for someone who plays speed demon on the weekends.
Subaru Outback 2.5XT Limited
The Outback is a bit of a ringer in this category. Traditionally, Subaru hasn't been considered a luxury brand, though it's been creeping increasingly upscale in the past 10 years. The redesigned Outback and Legacy wagons launched last spring are the biggest steps yet in the gilding of this brand; in videos at the models' debut press conference, Subaru made direct comparisons with the BMW 3-series and Audi A4 on features such as torque and horsepower.
So how does it stack up? Quite well in many ways. Subaru has swapped racy curves and a hood scoop for the old gray exterior cladding that indelibly linked it to flannel-wearing Vermonters — and taken the interior up a couple of notches to match. Meanwhile, the turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts out a whopping 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. Paired with the manual transmission, it is a thrill to drive if neck-snapping acceleration is what you're after. And all this at a price far below that of the BMW or Audi.
But there are a few reasons that, despite its value, the Outback isn't the overall winner. For one, it's less comfortable inside than you might expect, given its exterior length. And while the new interior feels much more stylish, it lacks an overall sense of luxury.
Audi A4 Avant 3.0 Quattro
This spring Audi will introduce a midyear redesign for its A4 sedan and wagon. The new version will share some of the styling cues of its big-brother A6, like the trapezoidal front grille, as well as the A6's impressive 255-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 as one of the engine options (the other will be a new 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder). That change will be most welcome, based on our experience driving the old version in December, when the new model was not yet available. Its 3.0-liter engine generated a decent amount of power, though it felt slightly hesitant from a dead stop compared with the BMW or Subaru.
Still, December gave the A4 ample opportunity to demonstrate how well the Quattro all-wheel drive grips slick roads. And the steering was tight and responsive, if not quite as dead-on as the BMW's.
The elegant interior, which remains unchanged on the new model, is classic and uncluttered, although the "premium leather upholstery" (a $1,000 option) didn't feel particularly premium.
Numbers sometimes lie. How else to explain the fact that the 325xi produces less horsepower and low-end torque than any of its competitors here, yet still feels zippier and more fun to drive? It never lacks for power, either on initial takeoff or passing on highways. The BMW also has the most responsive steering of the bunch and whips around turns as if it's glued to the road.
As for styling, the 325 doesn't stop you dead in its tracks with its beauty, but it is quietly attractive, with matte finishes and brushed metal trim. It does lose points for the standard vinyl-covered seats, as opposed to cloth, but you can opt for leather upholstery for $1,450. Still, for a car that was once notorious for skimping on standard features, the 3-series is arguably now better equipped than many competitors, with a sunroof, rain-sensing wipers and automatic climate control.