Station wagons have changed noticeably in the last 20 years or so. Gone are the full-sized land yachts that hauled families around suburbia, to be replaced by minivans and SUVs. Nowadays station wagons can still fill the role as a family hauler, but they also offer a more civilized, better driving alternative to SUVs for active people looking to transport gear and literally get off the beaten path.

    One of the trailblazers (pun intended) in the rugged wagon market is Subaru, which with its all-wheel-drive Outback started the ‘station wagon on steroids’ category of a wagon with some SUV attributes and off-road capabilities.

    The Outback boasts 8.7 inches of ground clearance yet retains a relatively low center of gravity, thanks to its horizontally opposed boxer engine. Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system sends power to all four wheels, which not only increases traction, but improves handling as well.

    The Outback offers two horizontally opposed variants, a 2.5 liter 4-cylinder mated to either a continuously variable automatic (CVT) or 6-speed manual transmission, and a 3.6 liter 6-cylinder mated to a 5-speed autoshifter. Power in the 4-cylinder is more than adequate, and in the 6-cylinder is plentiful. The ride is smooth and comfortable, and the nice tight suspension and communicative steering make it handle well. On a wet, icy day it felt very sure-footed, and a stability control system is there as a safety net if needed. Gas mileage with the 4-cylinder and CVT is 22 city, 29 highway; with the 6-cylinder it’s 18 city, 25 highway.

    The interior has moderately bolstered heated leather seats, optional dual automatic climate control, radio controls on the steering wheel, fake—but good looking—wood accents, and a back-up camera in the rearview mirror. Back seat room is plentiful and it has a nice big cargo area in back that can be expanded by folding the 60/40 rear seat.

    Dr. Paul Lerner recently purchased an Outback for his family, and loves it. “I couldn’t think of a better car for bad weather driving and shlepping the kids and all the baby stuff around,” he says. “It drives nicely, gets good mileage and is super reliable.”

    The base 4-cylinder starts at about $24,000; the 6-cylinder, about $29,000 and goes up to around $32,000 for the fanciest trim level.

    Another vehicle in the same category is the Volvo XC70, which like the Outback, has its origins in a station wagon beefed up with some SUV-like characteristics.

    The XC70 is aggressive, with an almost shark-like front end, high road clearance, and black hard plastic body cladding all around the lower exterior. Nice exterior features like turn signals on the door mirrors add to its safety, as does the blind spot monitoring system, which illuminates a light on the side mirror when someone is in your blind spot. A back-up camera is available on higher trim levels, but if not so equipped, it still has front and rear park assist that beeps when you get close to something while parking.

    The interior is typical Volvo, a nice mix of luxury, practicality and utility. Rich leather covers the moderately bolstered heated front seats. A very intuitive dual automatic control has an outline of the human body. Just press the part of the body where you want the air to flow, adjust the fan speed and temperature, and you’re set. The rear cargo area is large, with underfloor storage and a tonneau cover, and is accessed through an electric lifting and closing tailgate. The roomy rear seat folds down 40/20/40 for maximum cargo and people-carrying flexibility. No third row seat is offered.

    The XC70 comes with the choice of two engines, a 3.2 liter inline 6-cylinder that pumps out 240 horsepower to the front or all four wheels via a 6-speed automatic, and a 3.0 liter turbocharged inline 6-cylinder that’s good for 300 horsepower to all four wheels. Gas mileage with the 3.2 is 16 city, 22 highway and the same for the 3.0 turbo.

    Power with the 3.2 liter engine is more than enough for most soccer moms. The 3.0 liter turbo boasts an abundance of power, which combined with good brakes and a nice stiff but comfortable European style suspension, offers good handling in a fun-to-drive car.

    Casey Krebs, VP at Weiss Brentwood Volvo says, “The XC70 is a great family vehicle that’s geared toward the outdoor sportsman with its excellent traction and very useable interior space.”

    Prices for the XC70 start about $32,000, and $38,000 for the turbo.  LN

*Robert W. Paster is also an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate, see">