It is a near-perfect day in late February, here in the foothills above the French Riviera - sunny, mild and not much traffic in the picturesque towns and medieval villages that surround Nice and Cannes.

If you want to test the road-holding ability, ride, comfort and acceleration of a fine European sports sedan, the local roads are an enthusiast's dream, whether you're the driver or the navigator.

I chose the latter position for the first leg of our jaunt through the Alpes Maritimes, a stone's throw from Provence. That's because I was lucky enough to land Linda Sharp, an Atlanta-based journalist and longtime driving instructor, as my partner.

Our wheels: A new 2001 Volvo V70. Yes, I know I said "sport sedan" earlier. And, yes, the V70 is a station wagon. But the latest edition was derived from the S80 sedan and, in fact, behaves much like its sibling - so much so, with the turbocharged five-cylinder engine and five-speed gearbox, that it's easy to forget the V70's primary function is as an ultra-safe and highly functional family hauler.

Sharp, a veteran race-car driver, pilots the V70 with absolute aplomb, while relating one juicy anecdote after another about various storied denizens of the motorsports circuit and their foibles.

On twisty mountain roads and at speeds like these, I should be car sick. Instead, I'm mesmerized. Some of Sharp's tales make the notorious Speed Racer sound like Peter Rabbit.

After the lunch break - a chunky beef stew and homemade noodles at an old refurbished farmhouse - it's my turn at the wheel. Fortunately, Sharp interrupts her story telling only long enough to furnish the occasional bit of navigational advice in that thick Georgia drawl.

The high-performance T5 we've managed to Shanghai is hands-down, one of the finest wagons I've driven, in the same league as the BMW 5-Series Touring and Audi A6 Avant. In comparison, the T5 seems like a bargain, at $33,400.

Volvo was smart to price the T5 just $1,000 above the entry-level V70, which features a low-pressure turbocharged 2.4-liter engine that makes 200 horsepower. The spicier engine, a 2.3-liter units, makes 247 horsepower, and can make the 0-60 sprint in about seven seconds. For those of you who don't normally put the family wagon through such paces, that's mighty quick.

Incidentally, the earlier reference to the similarities between the S80 and the new V70 may be a bit misleading. Yes, the two cars share a common engineering platform, but most of the exterior body panels have been changed on the wagon.

Volvo made the new V70 body more rigid, which helps eliminate squeaks and rattles, and slightly smaller on the outside, without sacrificing interior space.

Ride comfort is greatly enhanced with the new suspension, which features MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link rear. Stabilizer bars keep body roll to a minimum, even on those close-your-eyes-don't-look mountain hairpins. A longer wheelbase also contributes to a smoother, less choppy ride, while a wider rear track gives the vehicle additional stability.

Because the new V70 is taller and wider than the car it replaced, there's more room inside. In addition, Volvo has designed in all sorts of consumer-friendly features, from grocery-bag holders in the rear to snap-in child safety seats. For dog lovers, there's even a kennel accessory package.

Volvo engineers have done much to ensure the V70 advances the company's long-held and richly deserved reputation in the safety arena. Standard equipment includes dual-stage air bags for front-seat occupants; six side air bags and inflatable air curtains; the WHIPS whiplash protection system; four-wheel antilock disc brakes, plus traction and stability control.

The V70 goes on sale in the U.S. in early April, followed by the launch of the redesigned V70 AWD XC Cross Country model in August. By year-end, the S70 sedan is scheduled to be replaced by a new series, giving Volvo an almost completely new product rangeheading into 2001.

You can wait for the S60 if you'd like, but here, on twisty two-lane roads overlooking the Cote d'Azur, I'm perfectly content driving the V70 T5 - a performance wagon for sedan lovers.

We round a corner outside the city of Grasse, known worldwide for its parfumeries, and are startled to see an ugly green penitentiary perched on the hill.

"Oh, well," observes co-pilot Sharp, "at least they have a nice view."