In these days of petrol poverty, when every fill-up makes you poorer, a lot of outdoor enthusiasts are looking for a better way—a sweet spot between performance and cargo capacity, along with an escape from the gas-greedy ways of sport utility vehicles. (Was that really $88 you just dropped at the local Gas-n-Go?) It makes sense to look to Europe, where high gas prices have long afflicted our cross-Atlantic cousins. Their answer: sport wagons, which mate roominess with fuel-efficiency.
Nobody does it better than the Swedes, hardy northerners who spend much of their time outdoors, reveling in the bounty of 20-hour summer days, then surviving through the equally long winter nights, when the pavement's glazed with ice and a breakdown on lonesome roads might mean bad, bad things on a frigid night. Saab has been out of the American wagon game since introducing the redesigned 9-3 sedan in 2003; they assumed we Yankees considered wagons uncool. The SportCombi—built on the 9-3's frame but in a hatchback/wagon version—is like a good foreign film that makes you wonder why Americans don't make stuff just like it. It's an ideal daily driver, ski vehicle and Home Depot picker-upper. A car that hauls, in every sense of the word.
[NEXT]The SportCombi has a quirky, likable shape that's all Saab. The low-slung silhouette begins at the top of the blunt grill and gathers graceful energy as it gradually sweeps up along the windshield. A long, angled roofline abruptly ends in a steep rake. Compared to, say, Audi's just-released A3 (see box), it's a roomy ride, with a full interior and generous exterior proportions. Even for the taller among us (and there are some lanky Swedes), the back seat affords ample head- and legroom.
If cues like the available 18-inch wheels and integrated mini-spoiler lend the impression of speed, it's no mistake. The Aero version comes with an all-new engine—a 2.8-liter twin-turbo V-6 used on other 9-3s as well. With 250 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque, this ain't your dad's 1970s faux wood—sided wagon. The all-aluminum powerhouse has virtually no turbo lag and sounds a heady engine note when you get into the gas. Even better, the price for that power is cheap: $33,000 for the top-of-line Aero. And Saab estimates it gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway, so it won't bite you badly on the back end, either. I got to rev the SportCombi on the type of road for which it was designed—a narrow two-lane outside Trollhatten, Saab's bucolic home in Sweden. It's no supercar, but it likes to be driven hard and is comparable to Subaru's Legacy wagon in terms of performance and storage. The six-speed gearbox in the manual is mushy and disappointing, but the six-speed automatic with manu-matic shifting is crisp; it will probably be the better seller on our shores. On my test drive, I quickly got the car up to speeds that I imagined to be illegal, then I realized that I had no idea what the Swedish police look like. I was lucky enough not to find out, even when I got the twin-turbos bucking up to full potential as I blasted past a long line of trucks on a short straightaway.
The SportCombi manages to be a driver's car without sacrificing any of its well-balanced usability. In fact, it's just that usability I most liked. With a tailgate that opens extra wide, optional roof racks and a 60/40 ski-hatch pass-through in the back seat, it's a natural for hauling skis, kayaks or bikes. Even the front passenger seat can be folded down for extra cargo. The Swedes like their outdoors, and it shows in their cars.
[NEXT "Audi's Mini Warrior"]Audi A3 Sportbacks have been prowling Latin America and Europe for years. Finally the sport wagon is skipping to our shores as well. About the size of a Volkswagen GTi or Mini Cooper, the A3 is slighter and lighter than the Saab SportCombi. It's a bit small for big drivers, but its front-wheel-drive performance is thrilling, and it's a relief to parallel park. I spent a day mootoring around small-town Connecticut and New York highways in a bright-red version, and it handled itself as well among the trucks on I-95 as it did spiriting along twisting two-lane byways.
The niftiest option is the Direct Shift Gearbox, a unique dual clutch system that is electronically controlled by paddle shifters mounted behind the wheel. It's similar to the F1 shifters on the $200,000 Ferrari F430. We'll see a variety of engine choices, but for now the A3 is available with a supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that gets the job done. With a price in the mid-$20s, it's a great, inexpensive addition to Audi's lineup.