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RUMBLE SEAT

Enter, the anti-SUVs

Sport wagons use less gas and are more likely to stay upright. Is it time to climb down from the sport-utility perch?

August 18, 2004|DAN NEIL

This just in from the government's Bureau of the Obvious: SUVs are more likely to roll over than cars. Coming soon: a statistical regression analysis involving fingers and light sockets.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled a new component in its five-star system for ranking vehicles' rollover risk. NHTSA will now issue a percentage representing the odds that a vehicle will roll over in a single-car accident. According to this scale, for example, the Mazda RX-8 has only an 8% chance of rollover. The Ford Explorer Sport Trac 4x2 has a 34.8% chance of rollover, the highest of any vehicle in the latest testing cycle. (The results can be viewed at www.nhtsa.gov.)

And they say God doesn't play dice.

Rollovers occur in only a small percentage of highway accidents but account for a quarter of all traffic fatalities, according to the government's statistics. Rollover deaths in accidents involving SUVs rose 6.8% last year, to 2,639, accounting for 40% of fatalities in SUV accidents. For the same period, rollover deaths in cars declined 7.5%.

SUVs are not highly nuanced, in the language of political campaigning. They are guilty instead of flip-flopping.

Consider your options. There are more than a dozen all-wheel-drive station wagons on the market, vehicles that combine foul-weather intrepidity, flexible cargo space, car-like performance and handling, and conscionable fuel economy, all with a marked proclivity for staying right side up.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
BMW engine -- A review of the BMW 325xi wagon that ran in the Highway 1 section Aug. 18 gave incorrect engine specifications. The car comes equipped with an inline 6-cylinder engine, not a V-6 as the article stated. The engine is rated at 184 horsepower, not 187.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 01, 2004 Home Edition Highway 1 Part G Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
BMW engine -- A review of the BMW 325xi wagon that ran in the Highway 1 section Aug. 18 gave incorrect engine specifications. The car comes equipped with an inline 6-cylinder engine, not a V-6 as the article stated. The engine is rated at 184 horsepower, not 187.

On this page are two doses of SUV antidote: the BMW 325xi wagon and the new-for-2005 Volvo V50 T5 AWD. Though growing a bit long in the tooth, the BMW is the gold standard for all-wheel-drive wagons, beautifully made, athletic and versatile, with better balance than a tent-full of Flying Wallendas. The V50 T5 is chic, distinctive and coolly modern, with a willing turbocharged engine under its fluted hood.

Run the numbers: Both wagons are 25% lighter than a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, America's bestselling SUV. Both are 20% lower in height. Both wagons return 25% better highway fuel economy than the Explorer. And both have significantly shorter stopping distances than the Ford -- stopping distance being one of the great ignored safety factors in most peoples' car-buying cerebrations.

Will the growing sophistication of all-wheel-drive wagons -- and their image makeover as "sport tourers" -- guile SUV lovers from their lofty, unstable perches? What are the odds?

Volvo V50

The two Swedish car companies, Saab and Volvo, are now owned by the American giants GM and Ford, respectively. Saab is getting the worst of it. While the 9-3 series cars -- based on GM's Epsilon platform -- retain the Saab's distinctive identity, the new Saab 9-2X is a cheap and ghastly re-skin of the Subaru Impreza (Subaru is also a corporate holding of GM); coming soon, the Saab 9-7X SUV, a Swede makeover of GM's mid-size SUV platform found under the Chevy Trailblazer and GMC Envoy.

Ford's stewardship of Volvo, meanwhile, seems to me much more deft and intelligent. Yes, the S40 sedan and new V50 wagon are based on the Ford's global C1 platform, found under the Mazda 3 and 2005 Ford Focus. But the compact Volvos have their own powertrains, suspensions and tangible spirits. The V50, a mechanical twin of the S40, is a fetching, subversively hip entry into the premium small-wagon segment. Subversive because -- unlike just about every car on Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour -- it isn't German.

The car is within whiskers of the Audi A4 1.8 T Avant Quattro and BMW 325xi in every dimension; yet at 3,399 pounds the high-performance V50 T5 all-wheel drive is the equivalent of one supermodel lighter than the BMW or Audi and, with its turbocharged, 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine, has more ponies in the paddock (215 horsepower) than either.

The base V50 2.4i, a front-drive version, comes with a naturally aspirated 2.4-liter five-cylinder (168 hp) and five-speed manual transmission; our V50 T5 AWD test car was equipped with the optional five-speed shiftable automatic ($1,200). The all-wheel-drive system, built by Haldex and familiar from bigger Volvos, directs 100% of the torque to the front wheels, sluicing power to the rear wheels only when the front wheels slip.

The Volvo feels very solid, very within itself, during hard driving, particularly for what is effectively a front-drive car. The steering is heavy but accurate, the brakes stiff and effective. It corners flatly, with a nice, easy balance, and the 205/50R17 radials adhere to the asphalt beautifully. These same tires give the car a bit of a flinty ride -- with small impacts registering in the chassis somewhat immoderately -- but the larger suspension movements are well damped and rebound is quickly annulled. The AWD models come with the sportier suspension; our test model's Sport package added the grippy wheels and tires.

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