The station wagon was once ubiquitous enough to become an American icon, roaming the roads and malls in vast herds, much as the bison plied the Plains in the 19th century.
But by the 1980s, they were losing ground, initially to the minivan and then to the sport utility vehicle. By the time the more car-like crossover had largely supplanted the traditional, truck-based SUV, the wagon you and your family used to go to Wildwood in had become an endangered species.
I always regretted the wagon's demotion to a small, walk-on part. Wagons are a good idea. They ride and handle as well as the pleasure cars on which they are based - and can carry more cargo. Equip it with all-wheel-drive and you have, in effect, a crossover with a lower center of gravity - which makes it dynamically superior.
One of the wagon's last refuges is in luxury-car showrooms, most of them German. And that's fine with me. There is something very attractive about the understated, utilitarian nature of an expensive station wagon. It's a vehicle that coddles you while minimizing the appearance of ostentation.
As I suggested, the luxury-wagon market has largely been a Teutonic sandbox - until now. Enter the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, a brand-new wagon variation on the luxury-car maker's excellent CTS Sport Sedan.
Comfortable and athletic, the Sport Wagon should be able to deal with a variety of needs and pocketbooks. The roomy midsize wagon is available with either rear-drive or all-wheel-drive, and with either a 3.0 or 3.6-liter V-6 engine. Prices range from $40,165 to $50,565 for the Premium model with AWD. I tested the rear-drive Premium, which weighs in at $48,665.
Like the well-received sedan on which it is based, the CTS wagon is a very distinctive car graced with exceptionally handsome, highly original styling. In fact, unlike most wagon variations, it may well be more striking than its sedan sibling with its sloping roofline, raked back end, and long, vertical taillights that run almost to the roof.
The test car proved as lovely inside. There, gray leather upholstery worked well with the black leather-look dash. Classy touches included chrome and silver accents, double saddle-stitching on the dash, seats and door panels, and the copious use of beautiful sapele veneers.
I was also impressed by the materials and workmanship employed in the richly carpeted rear cargo area. The latter included chrome rails fitted with handsome sliding, adjustable tie-downs.
The cargo area also houses a compact spare tire. As if the prospect of having to drive around on autodom's answer to a Dunkin' Donuts Boston Cream isn't bad enough, Cadillac charges you $250 extra for the privilege. (The compact spare is considered an upgrade from the basic tire-inflator kit.)
Speaking of the cargo area, it is, at 25 cubic feet, almost twice the volume of the CTS sedan's trunk. Folding the rear seats down more than doubles that.
At 4,200 pounds, the Sport Wagon is a couple of hundred pounds heavier than its sedan counterpart, thanks to the extra structure and the hefty electric liftgate. In the 3.6-liter wagon I tested, that weight gain tacks about a half second on the 0-to-60 time (now seven seconds). But that extra weight in the back also improves fore-to-aft weight distribution.
The Sport Wagon is a fine performer with the base brakes, suspension, tires and engine (a 3-liter, 270-horsepower V-6). But with the Premium's 3.6-liter, 304-horse V-6 and the optional high-performance tires and suspension found on the tester, you have something markedly better.
The 3.6-liter direct injection V-6 has a wonderful engine note to go with its plentiful power and decent mileage. (It has EPAs of 18 city and 26 highway.) This engine, which first resided in the CTS and more recently obtained a second home in the Chevy Camaro, also dovetails nicely with the Sport Wagon's six-speed automatic gearbox.
Driving pleasure is further enhanced by the Sport Wagon's superb handling and braking, its endearing steering feel and precision, and its pleasant, quiet ride.
2010 Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon (Premium)
Base price: $48,665.
As tested: $52,040.
Standard equipment: 3.6-liter engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and all the operatives from the Central Luxury Agency including leather, 10-way power seats, Bose 10-speaker sound system, and sapele veneer trim.
Options: Include high-performance tires, suspension, brakes and cooling system, and the piece de resistance, a compact spare tire.
Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city and 26 highway.
Engine performance: Strong.
Handling: A joy.
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper.
The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.