The Saturn LW300 showed up at our house with a picnic basket in back. There was also a TV screen that dropped down from the ceiling.

There was a message here. The way I read it, this well-turned-out midsize wagon was all set up for family fun, kids and adults alike, delivering the accoutrements of a minivan or SUV but without the bulk. What was left unsaid is that the Saturn is a sporty, well-equipped wagon worth a second look in this increasingly popular segment.

The Saturn was also wearing a grin. It was a new, bright-chrome grille, part of a freshening designed to make the L-series cars more distinctive and maybe help this midsize branch of the Saturn family gain more of a following.

Despite nice driving characteristics and Saturn's famously sunny aura, the L cars - LS for sedan and LW for wagon - have failed to make much of an impact.

Sales have been soft since the cars arrived for the 2000 model year, attributed mainly to their bland styling. Of course, they are also going up against the hardest part of the market, populated by Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat, Ford Taurus and several other well-established family cars.

The 2003 LS and LW look more interesting and could pull in drivers who had been considering imports. This was Saturn's goal when General Motors set up the corporation to design and market a new slate of compact cars to battle the onslaught of little cars from Japan.

The L-series cars are not really home-grown and are based on a platform and mechanical parts from the Opel Vectra, a European GM product. The good news is that LW gets the ride and handling of a Eurowagon without the premium price.

Well, it's not quite a BMW or a Saab, but LW does have a sporty feel to its cornering, braking and acceleration, and a little more of an edge than one might expect in what's essentially a domestic station wagon. Credit good suspension dynamics, rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and low-profile tires on 16-inch wheels. That's all standard on the LW300 model, which also comes with a 3-liter V-6 rated at 182 horsepower and automatic. The slightly less expensive LW200 has a four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, milder suspension and rear drum brakes.

The V-6 engine feels strong, but it's also harsh under acceleration, which goes against the grain of this slick wagon. The engine and transmission otherwise perform nicely, with plenty of power and flexibility.

The LW300 comes fully equipped, including standard power windows, door locks and mirrors, cruise control, rear seat reading lamps and side curtain air bags, an excellent safety feature. Antilock brakes cost $400 extra, which is a step backward for GM, which used to include them standard on its cars.

The test car included a $4,280 options group called the DVD entertainment package. Obviously, this includes the video system, made up of a DVD player, 7-inch LCD screen, wireless headphones (very cool) and plug-in jacks for video games. This feature was enormously popular with my teenage boys, who spent an afternoon's trip watching Royal Tenenbaums and howling with laughter.

What you also get for your four grand-plus is a leather interior, the GM communications system Onstar, chrome wheels, roof rails and tailgate handle, fog lamps, upgraded stereo with CD stacker, power driver's seat, and a couple of other goodies. The sticker says the package saves $940 over the individual options, but it still seems like a lot of money.

The options package, ABS brakes and shipping charge brought the LW300 to $27,255 from $22,575. That's still not bad in today's world, but it seems like a hefty chunk of change for a Saturn (no offense intended), even one as nicely equipped as this one. Of course, try pricing a midsize import similarly equipped.

The interior could use some upgrading. It's hampered by a low-end el that should be addressed with richer materials and finishes, especially in this upgraded version.

But overall, the LW300 shows why sporty wagons and four-door hatchbacks are on the upswing, in lieu of dull minivans or huge SUVs.