Suddenly, station wagons are cool. Not the big, beefy Ranch Wagons, Custom Cruisers and Roadmasters that once hogged the highways before being displaced by minivans and sport-utility vehicles, but a new generation of trim, even sporty four-door wagons, mainly from Europe.

Volvo wagons have been transformed from boxy haulers into svelte fashion statements. Audi wagons are renowned for their refined road manners. Even haughty BMW has a couple of "Touring" wagons for the horsy set.

There's Subaru, which managed to carve out an entire new niche with its Outback series of all-wheel-drive wagons; another wagon is being introduced for Saturn's new midsize LS car; and Ford continues to score decent sales with its Taurus/Sable wagon.

Now, Saab is jumping into the fray with a midsize wagon based on its 9-5 (say "nine-five") sedan. The 9-5 wagon really is a fine piece, and anyone who likes driving will appreciate the balance, power, steering and braking of this car. The interior is handsome and businesslike, with an aircraft-style cockpit that reveals Saab's aeronautic roots.

In terms of creature comfort, what could be better on a hot, sticky day than a seat that incorporates an electric fan to blow cool air through ventilating holes in the seats? Or how about a cargo floor in the rear deck that slides out on rollers to make loading easy or provide an impromptu desk or picnic table?

Then there's the optional equipment to keep your dog happy and safely buckled up. Also, the passenger-side mirror that's cleverly designed with two convex parts, providing a panoramic view to the rear. And the "catcher's mitt" head restraint that fights whiplash injuries in the event of a rear-end collision.

The new Saabs may not be as quirky as the old ones (this from a guy who once owned a 1960s-era 96 model with a corn-popper two-cycle engine), but they are beautiful, well-designed cars that will appeal to driving enthusiasts and the fashion-conscious, as well as engineering nerds.

Two models from Trollhatten, Sweden, are now in the showrooms, the smaller 9-3 - which doesn't include a wagon but does have a four-door hatchback and a spiffy convertible - and the 9-5. The new models seem to have struck a chord, and Saab is having a decent sales year, for a change.

Saab-ophiles will be glad to note that the 9-5 still has the signature feature of the ignition key in the center console, a piece of ergonomic design that mystifies most people. The idea, as I understand it, is to put your right hand down where all the starting procedure happens - ignition, parking brake and gearshift.

The test wagon was powered by an aggressive 3-liter V-6, turbocharged and sparkling with 200 horsepower. This engine comes on with a rush and keeps on pulling with a flat, even load of torque throughout its range. Saab was also a pioneer in engine turbocharging, and this smooth, efficient power plant shows the decades of development that went into it.

The en gine is not solely a Saab product, but comes from General Motors, which owns a majority share in the Swedish automaker and provided an engine produced in England and used extensively in Europe. Now, that's world economics at work.

The V-6 comes only with an automatic transmission, a decent unit with smooth upshifts and predictable downshifts. The Saab wagon is not offered with all-wheel-drive, unlike some of the competition, such as Volvo, Audi and Subaru.

If you want stick, you can opt for the turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a classic Saab unit that churns out a clean, quick 170 horsepower. That engine also can be fitted with automatic. In some of Saab's more aggressive models, the four is boosted to 230 horsepower.

Whatever the horsepower, it's put down to the pavement through the front wheels with hardly a hint of torque steer. That's the result of good front-end geometry from a company that's been making front-wheel-drive cars for more than 50 years.

The price t ag on the 9-5 SE is fairly steep, although it doesn't break the $40,000 barrier and undercuts some of the competition. The base price includes all the electronic and comfort features on anyone's wish list, as well as Saab's advanced safety features.

A base model 9-5 wagon with the four-cylinder and stick shift is about $32,000.

Complaints about the wagon are few and simple. The styling is sharp but not really distinctive, as every Saab should be. I would like stick shift made available for the V-6. I'd also like an in-between model with the V-6 but with less content that's not so pricey.

This is the first station wagon Saab has offered in nearly three decades, coming at a time when wagons are making a surprise comeback. For those who prefer driving sporty cars rather than clumsy trucks, the Saab has the performance and refinement plus the cargo space to make it function in the real world.

2000 Saab 9-5 wagon

Vehicle type: Five passenger, four-door wagon, front-wheel drive. Base price: $37,250. Price as tested: $39,270. Engine: 3-liter turbocharged V-6, 200 hp at 5,000 rpm, 229 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm. Transmission: 5-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,690 pounds. Wheelbase: 106.4 inches. EPA mileage: 17 city, 24 highway. Highs: Sporty performance. Advanced features. Versatility. Lows: No stick shift with V-6. Needs moderate-price version.