During the U.S. media preview of the new entry-level Jaguar X-type sedan four years ago in Atlanta, Jaguar officials said the tony British brand would never offer a sport utility. Today, that still holds true, but the company has bent to pressure from U.S. dealers and created the next best thing: the world's first Jaguar station wagon.

The company may be content to just skip the whole SUV thing. Most automakers are now adding wagons back to their lineups as consumers, weary of high fuel consumption in their big, trucklike SUVs, are moving back to wagons or the new so-called crossover sport utilities or "sport tourers," which are really just puffed-up station wagons (such as the Nissan Murano, Infiniti FX, Chrysler Pacifica, and so forth).

For its first wagon, Jaguar chose the platform of its compact X-type sedan, which allowed for the creation of a premium compact wagon in the same size and class as the Audi A4, Volvo V50 and Mercedes-Benz C-class wagons, among others.

Rolled out for automotive journalists at a recent ride-and-drive event in Palm Springs, the X-type Sport Wagon, powered by the same 3.0-liter V-6 engine used in the X-type sedan, proved to be just as fun to drive as the sedan, and just as agile.

The driving experience actually was quite delightful - very Jaguar-like - even though this is the company's lower-priced entry vehicle that is based on the chassis of the European Ford Mondeo (which also was the basis for the now-discontinued U.S. Ford Contour and Mercury Cougar).

It's almost a shame to have to mention the heritage of this vehicle, however, because the car is nothing like a Mondeo, Contour or Cougar.

Surprisingly, even at a starting price in the low-$30,000s, the X-type sedan looks and feels like a real Jaguar, finally offering those on a budget who have always hankered for one of these British cars a chance to own one.

Of course, a lot of people wouldn't consider a car priced in the low-$30,000s to be suitable for someone on a budget, but when you consider that the rest of the Jaguar line runs from $45,000 up to nearly $90,000, the idea of a car with the ride, styling and handling of a Jag for under $35,000 seems quite the bargain.

The new X-type wagon, beginning at $36,995, costs a bit more than the base price of the sedan ($31,495 with five-speed manual gearbox, $34,995 with automatic), but if you need a wagon and can afford the extra money, you won't be disappointed in this new model. And unless you look to the rear, you won't really know you're even driving a wagon.

As a compact wagon, the X-type doesn't come with a third row of seating, so it still seats five, same as the sedan. But you do get a nice, tall cargo area rear of the back seat, and that seat can be lowered to extend the cargo compartment to the back of the front seat, allowing you to haul sports equipment and other stuff that active young couples who are expected to buy this car will often want to carry.

And while the idea of a Jag wagon might seem odd, it's nowhere near as strange as the idea of a Porsche SUV (they now have one). What the X-type wagon may do for Jaguar is bring more younger, less-affluent (but on the way up) buyers into showrooms, and help the company in its recovery efforts after losing more than $1 billion in calendar year 2004. The company remains afloat because it is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., which apparently is solidly committed to Jaguar, at least for now.

"We had a pretty tough year in 2004," Vic Bernardini, president of Jaguar Canada, said during a presentation to the assembled U.S. and Canadian journalists about the British company's recent financial results and its plans for 2005.

But there were some bright spots for the company last year, he said.

The company was judged to have the best pre-owned sales program in the luxury car industry, and J.D. Power last year ranked Jaguar No. 1, tied with Lexus, in consumer sales satisfaction.

Additionally, the X-type's initial quality, as judged by a separate J.D. Power survey, has improved 32 percent since its fall 2001 introduction.

And while the X-type hasn't sold as well as Jaguar had expected, the company now has totaled more than 100,000 sales of the car in North America and 250,000 worldwide since introduction. That is fairly impressive considering that some Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes and Audi vehicles in the same class haven't done much better.

Much more important - and a true measure of the car's success - is that 94 percent of X-type buyers were new to the Jaguar brand, and 50 percent of them have gone on to buy another Jaguar, many of those the more-expensive models. The whole idea of the X-type was to attract more people to the brand so they would consider moving up to a higher-priced model when they were able.

Although the 2005 X-type sedan continues with the same styling and basic drivetrain, there have been more than 1,000 component changes in the car since it came on the market, Bernardini said. Many of those changes were aimed at improving quality and overall reliability, and have been very successful.

At introduction, Jaguar promoted the X-type as the first Jaguar under $30,000. The price for the entry-level model with the base 2.5-liter V-6 engine was just barely under $30,000, but for 2005, that model has been dropped. Now only the 3.0-liter V-6 is offered; the company didn't sell enough of the 2.5-liter models to make it worthwhile to keep it in the lineup, and that engine really offered less-than-Jaguar performance anyway, officials said.

The engine in the new X-type wagon, as well as the other sedan models for 2005, is the most powerful standard powerplant in the European premium compact sedan class, at 227 horsepower and 206 foot-pounds of torque. With automatic transmission, this engine can power the car from zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds; with the manual (sedan only), the time is cut to 6.6 seconds.

And the X-type is still the only premium compact sedan with full-time all-wheel drive as standard equipment on every model. That system now extends to the wagon model as well. All-wheel drive is hot right now, even in Sun Belt states, because it offers the best traction on all road surfaces and in all weather conditions, wet or dry.

Jaguar expects the wagon to account for 5 percent to 10 percent of the X-type's total annual sales.

"This vehicle is designed to appeal to active-lifestyle customers, giving them a wagon without compromising luxury and prestige," said Jeff Key, program manager for the wagon.

Although it is styled similarly to the sedan and carries the same drivetrain, the wagon has 420 different, new tooled parts and 58 new body stampings, including unique rear doors and roof.

The wagon comes with a split tailgate and functional roof rails, and has a structure that is 8 percent stiffer than that of the sedan, Key said.

In the back is 50 cubic feet of open cargo space, as well as four cubic feet of hidden space under the cargo floor. Included in the carpeted cargo compartment are chrome cargo tiedowns and a 12-volt power outlet that allows for recharging of a laptop computer while it is concealed in the under-floor storage area, Key said. There is a removable cargo-area cover as well.

Safety features include standard side-curtain air bags for front and rear occupants, along with four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution.

In addition to the wagon, Jaguar has added two uplevel sedan versions to the X-type lineup for 2005.

They include a Sport model ($36,695 plus freight), and the top-of-the-line VDP version ($37,945 plus freight).

VDP stands for Vanden Plas, a designation used for the classiest model in the XJ sedan lineup (with a $68,330 pricetag). Because the Vanden Plas name is licensed only to the more-expensive model, Jaguar uses only the initials for the X-type derivative.

Included in the VDP model are plush interior upgrades such as burl walnut veneer trim and premium leather seats with color-contrast piping.

The Sport model has a carbon-fiber dash, sport seats and some body enhancements. All of the new X-type models for 2005, including the wagon, are on sale now.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.