The end of the sport-utility era is upon us. It is now time to explore outside of the box and delve into the world of wagons. All are practical and some are, dare I say it, good looking. There are lots of choices, but we will look at the underdogs.

Part I will deal with the Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi. If you have been following recent headlines, it is clear that Saab does not have the presence it once had in the U.S. Part II will give more insight into the Subaru Outback 3.0R. It will be interesting to see if the Subaru will dispel assumptions that the only suitable buyers are situated along the Canadian border.

Picking up the 9-3 Aero SportCombi was an interesting experience. Lipstick red? You bet. Ten minutes later, I found myself on the shoulder of a busy New Jersey road with the blues and two's going -- damn.

Refreshed styling gives the Saab a fiercer look.

The 9-3's exterior is conservative. Seeing a 9-3 cruising down the strip, it is painfully obvious that it is a Saab. However, some updates have been put in order. There is new lighting in the front and rear. The front parking lights, which can be best described as eyebrows, complement the xenon headlights and provide the front end with a bit of ferocity. Larger cutouts to feed air to the engine make their way into the front valence. Certainly a more aggressive appearance than previous Saabs, this new look provides an attractive face for the brand. I think we have a "sleeper" on our hands.

Do not be fooled by the exterior's updates. The interior is a carryover of a 1990s 9-3. This is not an entirely bad thing. For one, any individual pursuing a driver-inspired vehicle will greatly appreciate the wraparound and slightly angled center stack. If I were a betting man, I would say this is where the jet engineers had their say; it feels more like an airplane cockpit than an automobile.

Ergonomically, the SportCombi has some quirks. For instance, you do not push the wiper stalk backward to initiate the rear wiper blade; you have to push a delicate tab. On top of this, there is other trickery, such as the ignition's location between the front seats.

One particular letdown was the vehicle's touch-screen navigation unit. Although it cost more than $2,000, the system did not perform with the likes of Japanese manufacturers. If you can deal with slow, go for it. You would most likely be better off with a handheld Garmin and a few extra bucks in your pocket. On top of this, figuring out how to activate the Bluetooth technology was impossible. I gave up.

These are minor points, because where this particular model shines is the drivetrain. Under the hood is a robust, six cylinder boasting a 280-horsepower motor good for 295 foot pounds of torque, the same amount of torque as a BMW M3.

This results in a deceptively quick machine, as I soon found out shortly after picking it up. Forty miles per hour comes up in the blink of an eye. Sixty to 80 mph is exceedingly quick, rivaling the power of vehicles like the

Lexus IS-F


On a jaunt to Princeton, New Jersey, I found myself passing Newark International Airport where a large, commercial aircraft was taking off. Burying the throttle, I wanted to see if the jet builders ensured this Saab would end up in the sky. As the revs climbed and the speedometer counted hastily upwards like an altimeter, I did not end up airborne, much to my chagrin. I firmly believe take off was imminent, though.

Passing in any gear is effortless due to the car's staggering turbo, which, when it kicks in, pulls your head back no matter how much you try to brace against it.

All of this power does come with a significant price. During the road test, the Saab reported a lowly 17 miles per gallon. This is a disappointing element for the 9-3. Assuming General Motors does not shed the Saab nameplate, it must improve mileage, especially when consumption is being taken seriously in today's auto industry.

Set up with a six-speed automatic, there are upshift and downshift buttons mounted on top of the steering wheel. Their irregular placement and tininess make them particularly annoying to operate. If that had not been enough, the buttons are not easily located in the midst of turning. In automatic mode, the transmission functions as one would expect. In manual mode, upshifts are particularly slow.

One aspect that was questionable about the Saab is its cross-wheel drive system, known as XWD. Historically, Audi and Subaru are known as the winter powerhouses building bulletproof systems. Saab brought its "A" game, though, because, during a recent ice storm that coated the tri-state region, the car held up remarkably well.

The SportCombi managed to maintain traction. When I forced it out of stability, its movements were predictable and composed. Pushing through slush and snow, the 9-3 does not panic and squirm. Instead, it surges onward, plowing onward.

So, not only is it good during unruly conditions, it manages to provide some thrills on nice, sunny days. With its significant power and sharp steering, the 9-3 corners with limited body roll. Thankfully, the lowered sport suspension provides a proper amount of stiffness without making driving in the tri-state region unbearable.

The Saab 9-3 SportCombi proved to be a very good vehicle, but it does bear its quirks. The 9-3 manages to balance sport and cross-country capabilities, thereby giving its owner the characteristics of a sports car and winter hauler. If you can swallow the price tag -- $46,835, as tested -- it deserves a test drive. I would suggest taking a look at the 2.0T variant, which begins at a reasonable $32,565.

At the time of publication, Posluszny had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

Richard Posluszny is a finance and information technology management double-major at Seton Hall University. He is an outside contributor, focusing predominantly on the automotive industry. He publishes a blog,

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