Although there's no sign of their sales declining (yet), the days of conspicuously consuming, over-capacitized, underutilized sport/utilities are numbered. Should gasoline prices suddenly fall in line with those around the world, 5000-7000-lb trucks will be thick on the used-car lots. Sure, there'll always be those who still require heavy metal to tow a boat, horse trailer, or race-car carrier, but most of today's sport/utility buyers do none of that. When fuel gets truly costly, the most sensible and sporty vehicle for many current SUV drivers will be, as Europe has already discovered, the sport wagon. We saw a hint of the future popularity this type of versatile vehicle will enjoy with the '01 Chrysler PT Cruiser (we named it Motor Trend's 2001 Car of the Year).
Granted, there's a new classification of automobile on the horizon, so-called sports tourers or crossovers exemplified by the forthcoming '04 Chrysler Pacifica among others. These larger-than-wagon, smaller-than-SUV something or others will likely capture those who don't want the real or perceived stigma of a minivan nor the environmentally insensitive label associated with traditional sport/utilities-even those me-too car-based cute-utes. What's left are fun-to-drive, surprisingly useful, four-door sport wagons that'll catch the attention of young or young-minded buyers who value style, cargo capacity, performance, and price-probably in that order. Besides, they're even more fun to drive than some sports cars and sport sedans. Really.
The relatively low-cost examples we gathered for this comparo also should've included the upcoming 205-hp turbocharged Chrysler PT Cruiser GT (see "First Drive," this issue), but one wasn't yet available for testing. Conversely, instead of comparing a lower-priced, otherwise near-identical non-turbo 165-hp Subaru Impreza 2.5TS AWD Sport Wagon ($17,495), we decided to lob a few rounds over the bow of the oft-praised turbocharged WRX Sport Wagon ($23,495); this particular tester resides in our own One-Year Test fleet. It was fitted just this month with a set of optional plus-one BBS/Bridgestone Potenza boots at a seriously pricey retail cost of $3035, bringing the as-tested total to an artificially swollen $27,055. Price-hedging aside, the Mazda Proteg5 ($16,335 base) and Toyota Matrix XRS ($18,750 base) hold more than a few surprises for the more expensive, hot-rodded WRX.
The core values all three of these hatchback sport wagons share are four doors, fuel-efficient high-revving four-cylinder engines, flexible load-carrying capacity, manual transmissions, and higher-than-expected levels of handling prowess-hence the "sport" in sport wagon.
We asked each manufacturer to please send us its highest-output best-handling compact wagon, and as a result, the list of standard equipment swells over their lesser models. Common to each of the three wagons are standard CD stereo, leather/tilt wheel, foglights, remote entry, power window/locks, cruise control, four-wheel disc brakes, and sport-tuned suspension and wheels. Call it all the "basic good stuff" (BGS) package.