To paraphrase a well-known quotation of Mark Twain, "News of the death of the small station wagon is highly overrated."

Indeed, the small station wagon is alive and well in the form of the 1997 Saturn SW1 and upscale SW2 models. A derivative of the Saturn SL sedans, these station wagons offer versatility plus fun-to-drive characteristics at an affordable price.

An SW1 runs a touch more than $12,000 for a base price, with the SW2 an additional $900. Then, you can tack on about another $400 for freight.

Optional items such as upgraded stereo, air, cruise, power sunroof and leather will add to the final cost.

This forms the basis for a clever, five-door vehicle whose rearward design parameters are a blend from the sedan. Fundamentally, it was a matter of redesigning the body from the C-pillar on back.

On the wagon, the roof applique flows rearward to the top of the tailgate instead of dropping off at the rear window onto a rear deck. The roof and the hood are steel stampings. Front and rear fenders, doors, tailgate and fascias are formed from ding-and-dent resistant polymer material.

As wagons go, the Saturn is pretty sleek-looking. Curving exterior surfaces give it a pleasing appearance, something not especially easy to obtain with a relatively small five-door.

The wheelbase is 102.4 inches, which is 2 inches shorter than the two-seater Corvette. The wagon's 176.9 inches of overall length is almost 3 inches shorter than that of the 'Vette, and, of course, the sports car has no back seat.

Even with these shorter specifications, the wagon accommodates three in the back plus two up front and still has 24.9 cubic feet of cargo space with everybody on board. With the rear seats down, cargo volume jumps to 58.2 cubic feet.

In addition, a split 60/40 rear seat back contributes to the wagon's overall cargo-hauling character.

It's pretty hard not to find a comfortable driving position in either the SW1 or SW2. Both models have ample fore/aft seat travel and a rake-adjustable steering. In the SW2, there is a separate height-adjustable seat and headrest.

Instrumentation is the basic analog four-gauge (speedometer-tachometer-temperature-fuel) layout.

The tach is going to be a quite viable instrument in the SW2 wagon that's equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission. Also standard is a double overhead cam engine, and this motor turns 8,000 rpm.

In optional four-speed automatic-transmission form, there isn't a whole lot more to do than turn on the key and go. Two versions of Saturn's own motors are available to give the wagons performance and fuel-efficiency.

Saturn produces its own aluminum engine blocks and cylinder heads, as well as nodular iron crankshafts and differential carriers. The two motor versions are a 1.9-liter (116-cubic-inch) single overhead cam four-cylinder and a 1.9-liter double overhead cam 4.

While both engines carry the same 116 cubic inches of displacement, there is a difference of 24-horsepower between the single cam (SOHC) and the twin cam (DOHC). Chalk that up to the dual cam having four valves per cylinder versus two for the single stick.

The SOHC motor, which powers the SW1 wagon, produces 100-horsepower, while the DOHC engine in the SW2 wagon puts out 124-horsepower. The single cam with its two-valves per cylinder and rocker arm valve actuation system flows about 30 percent less air than the four valve, and that drops the power big time.

For a small station wagon, the SW2 is a good performer. In manual transmission form, 0-60 mph comes in a 9.0 seconds, and top speed is 130 mph. By contrast, 0-60 for the SW1 is about 1.5 seconds slower, and top speed is 20 mph slower.

However, the SW1 is less expensive to buy and a little cheaper to run.

The five-speed SW1 gets 28 miles per gallon city and 37 on the highway. For the SW2, it's 27/37. Using an automatic makes agreater difference in town in that mileage is 27/34 for the SW1. The SW2 rating is 24/34.

The s mall Sa turn wagons are an alternative to the minivan and possess their own individual advantages. It's a different kind of car and has found its own niche in the marketplace.