She'd gone back to Barney Street, to a time when her age was just childhood. That was 43 years ago in Marshall, Tex., where she grew up. Now she was reminiscing in the whirr of traffic on I-95, heading south toward Richmond. I tried to listen, but my mind was lost somewhere in the fifth gear of the 2001 Volkswagen Jetta Wagon GLX.

I was smiling, and perhaps my wife thought I was following her story. But I was lost in wonder. How do the Germans come up with cars like these -- station wagons that handle as well as sports coupes?

We cleared the bottleneck at Springfield. Traffic was flowing at a de facto legal speed.

The road has its own democracy. The posted speed limit might be 55 or 65. But if everyone is moving faster, effectively rewriting the law with pedal to metal, you'd better keep up -- or get out of the way.

I chose to keep up. It was easy. In fifth gear, the wagon was cruising. Its 174-horsepower VR6 engine was breathing nicely, showing no evidence of strain. It would have been good, I thought, if VW had put a six-speed manual transmission in this one. But that was the notion of a recalcitrant throttle jockey.

Interstate 95 is not Germany's autobahn, where traffic moves at fiber-optic speed and efficiency. By comparison, I-95 is an unimproved back road. Why bother puting a six-speed hot rod there?

Besides, the five-speed car was doing well enough -- better than "well," actually. It displayed none of the skittishness often found in other front-wheel-drive cars at high speeds. It changed lanes with authority. This was good. A car that moves with confidence gives its driver confidence, too.

But on this drive, the challenge was to keep confidence from veering into recklessness. The danger stemmed from the temptation to engage in risky highway behavior, such as zooming in front of trucks in close quarters, simply because the car was fast enough to pull off that stunt.

High performance is seductive. So is safety. Some people in safe cars compromise safety by betting that their cars will save them from everything. That's ridiculous, of course. But there is an illusory freedom behind the wheel of a car, such as the Jetta Wagon GLX, that is equipped with standard anti-lock brakes, front bags, side bags, head bags and a rigid body with well-engineered crumple zones. You feel invulnerable.

But my wife's voice checked my libido. She was talking about family road trips with her late father, William McDonald Reed, in a 1956 Nash Rambler Custom Cross Country wagon. The Reed kids called the car "Nash Reed."

The Nash also had six cylinders, but it was primitive in comparison with the new Jetta Wagon GLX. Pa and Ma Reed would pile six children into that car with no air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection -- none of that. Certainly the Nash lacked the Jetta Wagon GLX's amenities -- heatable leather-faced seats, wood trim, auto matic air conditioning, premium sound system, sunroof and myriad other goodies.

They'd drive all night from Marshall to New Orleans, or Marshall to Houston, and somehow they'd get there in one piece.

"Times change," I said.

There was no response. Her reverie continued unimpeded. "Whatever happened to that car?" she asked about the Nash.

"Gone," I said. "Long gone."