Jag's Barely Domesticated Wagon


Ever wonder what kind of car James Bond would drive if he got married, had a kid, and spent his off hours changing diapers and picking Cheerios out of his trouser cuffs like other new dads? Making supermarket runs for Pampers and strained peas in his work car -- typically a powerful BMW or Aston Martin equipped with machine guns or a missile launcher -- wouldn't be all that practical. But it's also hard to imagine the British super-spy driving anything as staid as a minivan or SUV.

My guess is that 007 would set himself up in a Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon. Introduced late last year, it's a practical little all-wheel-drive station wagon with plenty of cargo space, tons of safety features, and a base sticker price ($36,995) that puts it at or below comparably equipped rival station wagons such as the BMW 3-series, the AudiA4, and the Mercedes C240.

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Ford Motor (F), which has owned Jaguar since 1989, has made great strides in improving the marque's quality: The Sportwagon and other X-type Jags get very high initial quality ratings from J.D. Power & Associates.

REV IT UP. But the Jag also has a zippy, 226-horsepower V-6 engine that's more powerful than the ones in the rival wagons at that price -- and it drives with a lot of the verve you associate with more expensive Jags. Plus, of course, you still get that famous leaping Jaguar hood ornament and the snarling Jaguar insignia in the center of the Sportwagon's 17-inch alloy wheels.

So it's the perfect car for the man or woman who's starting a family, but is not yet ready to give up all the perks of the single life. The message you're sending to the neighbors when you pull up: I may be domesticated, but I'm not entirely tame.

Some pretty sporty driving comes standard with the Sportwagon, which will jump from zero to 60 mph in under eight seconds. It's no Ferrari, but that ain't bad for a station wagon. The engine has a pleasing sportscar whine to it, especially if you run up the RPMs a bit.

For the base price, you can choose either a five-speed manual transmission or an automatic that allows you to shift gears manually if you want to. That's handy for quick acceleration. I preferred shifting this way on the Pennsylvania backroads, near where I live, because I found I could really shoot up hills that way.

CLASSIC CAT STYLING. If you don't want to bother with shifting, punch a button and the automatic goes into "sport" mode -- in which, as the owner's manual puts it -- "the gearshift points are extended to make full use of the engine's power reserves."

The Sportwagon's fit and finish are fairly typical of an entry-level luxury car -- which is to say entirely acceptable. The exterior design is pleasing, with a classic Jaguar-style grill up front and long, sloping roofline, but it's not particularly striking.

The interior is tasteful and well-appointed, with standard leather-trimmed seats and wood-veneer highlights. But it's far from luxurious. You have to pay an extra $1,950 for the premium package, which includes higher-end features such as eight-way adjustable front seats with extra lumbar support, rain-sensing wipers, a trip computer, and memory functions for the electric seats and mirrors.

On the other hand, considering practicality and safety, just about everything you need is included in the base price. With all-wheel drive standard, the car should handle reasonably well in snow (though I couldn't put it to the test driving the car in summer). It comes standard with front seat-belt pretensioners, front and side airbags for the driver and passenger, and front and rear side-curtain airbags.

MORE A STARTER. You'll find plenty of leg-space up-front and an adequate amount in the back (slightly more than in the X-type sedan from which the Sportwagon is derived). The Sportwagon has a fair amount of storage space, too: 24 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 50 with them folded down.

Other nifty features include: a little hidden storage compartment in the back with a 12-volt electrical hookup so you can stash a video camera or portable computer and let it recharge, a handy flip-up rear window that makes it easy to get groceries and other cargo out of the back, and silver roof-rails that complement the car's design and can be used to tether a roof rack if you really need more space.

Mileage isn't great: The Sportwagon is EPA-rated at 18 miles-per-gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, so you'll probably get 19 or 20 mpg in real-life driving. Also, consider this as more of a starter family car, not a replacement for an SUV or minivan as the kids get older and you start ferrying them and their friends to school events and soccer practice. Technically, the car can carry five passengers, but I'd guess two adults and two kids are the most you'd want on a long drive.

BEATS THE RAP. Like the other performance station wagons from BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, and Audi, the Jag Sportwagon is a niche product that probably will never achieve big sales numbers. A spokesman says Jaguar only expects to sell about 1,000 Sportwagons in the U.S. this year, even though the price of the 2006 version is staying the same as this year's model.

That's a shame, because in my book station wagons are far more practical, fuel-efficient, and fun to drive than most of the minivans and gas-guzzling SUVs most people buy as family cars. The main rap on station wagons is their stodgy image -- and this car certainly doesn't drive stodgy.


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