Wagon Train

So you want all-wheel drive for the snow and enough cargo space to carry more than a couple of bags, but you despise big SUVs? You may be a candidate for one of the auto industry's niftiest niches, all-wheel-drive wagons.

I recently test-drove six of these: the Volvo XC70, the Mercedes-Benz C320, the Volkswagen Passat W8, the Audi A4 3.0 Avant, the Subaru Outback and the BMW 325xi. There are more, but these represent a substantial slice of what's available for roughly $30,000 to $40,000. A rung higher on the price ladder are the Audi A6 Avant and, coming to the U.S. later this year, the new edition of the Mercedes E-class wagon.

First up: the Volvo XC70, the all-wheel-drive version of Volvo's bestselling midsize wagon. Volvo sells a range of models, including the XC90 crossover utility, but "Volvo" and "wagon" remain as tightly linked in the realm of brand identity as "Kodak" and "film."

The XC70's 208-horsepower, five-cylinder turbocharged engine provided adequate power, though it idled and ran a bit rougher than the German six cylinders. On a snowy dirt road, the XC70 accelerated and stopped with minimal drama, thanks to antilock brakes and traction control. Volvo knows how to create a secure feeling in its cars.

The Volvo was the largest car in this group, with plenty of leg room in front and rear, and comfortable seats. The XC70 has the most overall cargo space of these six vehicles, and my test car came with an optional net that extended from the back of the rear seat to the ceiling, the better to keep bags from flying forward.

The wagon's interior styling isn't a strong point. Neither objectionable nor inviting, my test car had fake wood accents on the glove box and the door handles, but my main memory is of gray plastic. Still, at $38,370 (all prices include destination charge), my test car had just about all the goodies I could want.

Audi A4 3.0 Avant. This is an easy car to like. It's quiet on the road, comfortable — for front-seat passengers — and it has one of the most elegantly tailored interiors in the business. The 220-hp, 3.0-liter engine and five-speed automatic transmission give the car plenty of zip. Still, this isn't a sport wagon so much as a compact luxury sedan with a fanny pack. My test car, with leather seats, a Bose sound system and other options, listed for $39,780.

Audi has carved a comfortable niche for itself with the A4 wagons. But fans of Audi should know that parent Volkswagen AG has another car that delivers a lot of the same function as the A4, but comes with a 270-hp eight-cylinder engine. The VW Passat W8 4Motion Wagon is a well-dressed machine with power everything, sunroof, leather seats and electronic stability control. The Passat isn't quite as natty as the Audi, but if get up and go is what moves you, and the idea of paying close to $40,000 for a Passat doesn't turn you off, the W8 wagon is a better horsepower-per-dollar deal than its upper-crust cousin.

Mercedes-Benz C320 4Matic Sport Wagon. The C320 4Matic is the slickest-looking wagon in this group, with a rear end that's streamlined, not boxy. The 215-hp, 3.2-liter six-cylinder steps the C320 smartly away from stoplights. The wagon is quiet on the highway, but the transmission in my test car made a noticeable thunk whenever I shifted from reverse to drive.

Mercedes has aimed the C-class at the BMW 3-series and comes close. Still, this small wagon has traits such as inscrutable dashboard buttons and a CD changer in the glove box; you either accept this as Mercedes mystique or move on. The $42,850 sticker made this the priciest of the group — and was this car's biggest flaw.

Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC. Subaru isn't a luxury brand, but the company clearly intends that this top-of-the-line model should compete for the attention of someone who would consider a European wagon. This isn't your "inexpensive and built to stay that way" Subaru. In fact, it comes with a 212-hp, 3.0-liter, six-cylinder engine, a full load of luxury car amenities and a price tag as tested of $32,920.

I got my test car on a snowy day when I needed to haul an office party's worth of dishes and glasses, and then retrieve some big pans of food from a caterer. Those chores demonstrated that while the Outback isn't big on the outside, it holds plenty behind the rear seat. And I appreciated the plastic liner tray in the cargo hold when I dribbled lasagna sauce.

The Subaru handles well and works hard. The interior isn't up to luxury standards, however. The knobs on the McIntosh sound system looked like something out of the 1970s. Yet the Outback VDC that I tested costs about $7,000 less than a loaded BMW 325xi wagon, which has less cargo space, less front leg room and less horsepower.

BMW 325xi Sport Wagon. This is a tasteful, agile car with an engine that sounds as if it cranks out 300 hp. In reality, the 325's 2.5-liter, in-line six-cylinder claims just 184 horses. Still, my test car performed ably, the interior was easy on the eyes, and no major amenities were lacking, except one: space. Leg room front and rear is skimpier than in most of the other models tested, and the BMW was next to last in cargo room. This is a very personal wagon, and at $40,445 as tested, the value proposition for the aging 3-series isn't compelling unless you snag a sweetened lease.

So the SmartMoney Award winner: the Volvo, which delivered the most wagon for the money. It's not as sporty as the BMW, or as eye-catching as the Mercedes. But the Volvo XC70 is comfortable, capable and spacious. What's more, since Volvo dealers now have the XC90 crossover to sell to SUV intenders, they are apt to be more reasonable on the XC70 than ever.