Good fuel economy, enough room for five people, a nice-size cargo area, and an affordable price?

It's not an SUV, though -- it's perhaps the next-best thing: the 2006 Suzuki Forenza wagon.

It's one of a whole new crop of small wagons on the market that are giving consumers an alternative even to the compact SUVs such as the Ford Escape and Chevy Equinox, both of whose fuel economy with their V-6 engines isn't much better than that of midsize sport utilities.

With fuel prices climbing, small wagons are making a big comeback in the United States, so much so that most automakers now have at least one in their fleets.

The Forenza is more than just an economical family hauler to purchase, with a starting price under $15,000; it's also a lot cheaper to operate than most SUVs EPA fuel-economy ratings are 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway for versions with manual transmission. Even models with the optional four-speed automatic get 21 mpg in town and 30 on the highway, far better than the numbers for most SUVs.

Last year, Japanese automaker Suzuki became the latest to enter this burgeoning market segment, with a wagon version of the compact Forenza sedan.

This wagon is part of Suzuki's strategy to dramatically increase its sales in North America over the next few years, primarily by introducing a bunch of new vehicles in segments that Suzuki hasn't competed in before, at least here in the United States.

Suzuki is known mostly for its small SUVs, having entered the U.S. market in 1986 with just one product -- the Samurai, a subcompact sport utility that was almost a miniature Jeep Wrangler.

Since then, though, Suzuki has brought a line of successful SUVs to the United States, including some it sold under its own brand name, and others sold as Geo and Chevrolet models at U.S. Chevy dealerships. Those included the Suzuki Sidekick and Geo/Chevrolet Tracker, then later the very nice Suzuki Vitara (great vehicle, dumb name), also sold as the Chevy Tracker.

One of the most successful, the V-6 Grand Vitara, was never shared with Chevrolet, nor was its seven-passenger derivative, the XL-7, which is Suzuki's best-selling SUV at the moment, and arguably one of the best sport utility values on the market. Suzuki also has sold small cars in the United States, some of those branded as Suzuki vehicles and some as Geo or Chevy models, such as the Metro minicar. None of those small cars met with great success in the North American marketplace, however, and now Suzuki wants to change that.

To that end, the company introduced a new line of subcompact cars -- a sedan and a hatchback -- in 2003, called simply the Aerio (for the sedan) and Aerio SX (for the hatchback). Both of these come from Suzuki factories in Japan.

In 2004, Suzuki added two more sedans based on designs that partner General Motors obtained when it bought South Korean automaker Daewoo out of bankruptcy. Those were the Suzuki Forenza compact and Verona midsize sedans, which are built at former Daewoo factories in South Korea.

Then, for 2005, two more vehicles joined the lineup -- the Forenza wagon and the compact Reno hatchback, both of which are based on the design of the Forenza sedan -- itself derived from the former Daewoo Nubira. The Forenza and its derivatives have been resculpted from their Daewoo days, however, with refreshing European styling from the renowned Pininfarina design studio.

With eight different bodystyles on sale now in the U.S. market -- two SUVs and six cars -- Suzuki is on a roll, and soon will launch a replacement for the XL-7, larger and more practical than its predecessor.

The Forenza wagon is intended for those in need of an economical vehicle that suits growing young families -- particularly those who can't afford even the compact SUVs that are aimed at them.

With 2006 prices beginning as low as $14,399 (plus $580 freight), the wagon is a good alternative to entry level SUVs that begin in the upper teens and low $20,000s, such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Element, Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra, Escape and Equinox.

Powering the wagon is the same 2.0-liter, dual-overhead camshaft inline four-cylinder engine found in the Forenza sedan. It's rated at 127 horsepower and 131 foot-pounds of torque.

No optional higher-powered engine is available at this time, but probably will come along later. This engine might be a bit anemic for those who live in mountainous areas, but it should be adequate for most people's needs, particularly here in Texas.

Yes, this car is inexpensive, but it's not a cheap car -- it has the looks and feel of a premium small car, something like you would expect from an entry-level Volvo, for instance.

The idea was to blend "SUV-like cargo capacity with the appeal of a premium sedan," according to a Suzuki news release about the car.

An important consideration for consumers in the Forenza's target market is that the vehicle seem much more expensive than it is, and the wagon pulls that off very well. That has become a hallmark of cars from South Korea of late, as we've seen with a spate of excellent new products under $20,000 from both Hyundai and Kia.

While there were three trim levels available for 2005, Suzuki has simplified the lineup for '06 with just one model, but a single premium package is offered that gives it the upgrades that were previously found in the other trim levels.

The base model comes with a high level of standard equipment, including power windows/mirrors/door locks; roof rails; rear defroster; intermittent wipers; four-wheel disc brakes; tachometer; digital clock; floor mats; driver and passenger sun visors with vanity mirrors; and air conditioning with micron air-filtration system that filters out dust, dirt and pollen.

Also standard is an eight-speaker AM/FM/compact disc/cassette audio system with steering-wheel controls.

The premium package, which raises the car's price to a still-sensible $15,699, includes fog lights, new 15-inch alloy wheels, remote keyless entry, an antilock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and cruise control.

The automatic transmission adds $800, and a power tilt-and-slide sunroof is offered for $700 on models with the premium package only. The antilock brakes can be added to the base model for $900, however, even without the premium package.

That means a well-equipped base model with automatic transmission and antilock brakes is just $16,379, including freight.

Our test car, which had everything including the premium package and sunroof, totaled $17,779, including freight. This adds up to quite a bargain compared with most small SUVs.

Gone for 2006, however, are the leather seats that were included with the former top-of-the-line EX version.

This vehicle's interior is rather well-done for such an inexpensive car. It includes metallic accents on the doors, instrument panel and center console; large, easy-to-read analog gauges that are backlit with jade-green; a tilt-steering wheel; and an eight-way adjustable bucket driver's seat that includes height and lumbar adjustments.

Five people really can ride in this wagon in relative comfort, although of course the back seat would be more comfortable with just two passengers, as in most vehicles.

Up front, the Forenza wagon has more headroom than its leading competitors, including the Ford Focus wagon, Jetta wagon, Subaru Impreza sport wagon and Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback.

Rear passengers have decent head, leg and shoulder room, too. Suzuki says the Forenza wagon "beats the same four competitors on rear shoulder room, and tops the Jetta, Impreza and Lancer on rear legroom."

Behind the second seat, the cargo area has 24.4 cubic feet of space. With the rear seatback folded down, the cargo area expands to as much as 61.4 cubic feet, a larger area than in the Jetta wagon or Lancer Sportback. A wide rear hatch lifts up for easy loading. Unibody construction and Suzuki's attention to noise-deadening detailing gives the car a very quiet ride.

As with all 2006 Suzukis, the wagon comes with a three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, plus a fully transferable seven-year/100,000-mile extended powertrain warranty that is transferable to succeeding owners, and has no deductibles.

Free 24-hour roadside assistance is included with the basic warranty period.

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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 (817) 726-0118;

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At a Glance 2006 Suzuki Forenza wagon

The package: Compact, front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder, five-door, five-passenger wagon.

Highlights: The Forenza wagon, added to the Suzuki lineup for 2005, is aimed at young families and others who want an alternative to the larger, more expensive, gas-guzzling SUVs. It is a wagon version of the Daewoo-insprired Forenza sedan, and is built by GM-Daewoo in South Korea.

Negatives: Only one engine is offered, and it could use more power on hills.

Length: 179.7 inches.

Curb weight: 2,849-2,893 pounds.

Engine: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder.

Transmission: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic optional ($800).

Power/torque: 127 hp./131 foot-pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum; antilock optional.

Cargo volume: 24.4 cubic feet (rear seat up).

EPA fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon city/30 highway (automatic transmission); 22 city/30 highway (manual).

Fuel capacity/type: 14.5 gallons/unleaded regular.

Major competitors: Subaru Forester, Honda Element, Scion xB, Ford Focus wagon.

Base price: $14,399 plus $580 freight.

Price as tested: $17,799 including freight and options (includes premium package, automatic transmission and sunroof).

On the Road rating: **** (four stars out of five).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling prices may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts in effect at the time of the transaction.