Saab's 9-3 SportCombi, a good-looking hatchback version of the 9-3, seems to have borrowed a styling cue or two from the Dodge Magnum, especially the long roof that slopes back and down. It gives the small wagon a sort of muscular, retro look. It also makes the SportCombi look more compact, and I had some doubt as to whether it would have enough headroom. But inside there's plenty of room, enough for four adults, as long as none are wearing top hats.

The muscular look is backed up by Saab's asymmetrically turbocharged 2-liter engine. Exhaust from only two of the four cylinders powers the turbocharger, but the turbocharger provides enough pressure to feed all four pistons, hence the asymmetric designation. The design helps eliminate turbo lag, letting the 210-hp engine quickly get the car up to speed and adding another 15 mph. It also lets the car wring some decent mileage from a gallon of gas; it earns a 20/30-mpg city/highway rating from the EPA, which I matched on my test drive.

Tight handling comes courtesy of power rack-and-pinion steering, MacPherson-strut front suspension with gas coils, and multilink rear setup with coils springs and gas shocks. This makes the relatively light car easy to handle on crowded streets and lets you really enjoy backcountry roads.

Inside, eight-way leather seats and a tilting, telescoping steering wheel let you get truly comfortable. The seats are also heated and cooled to help take the edge off those weather extremes. The Swedish ergonomics, like the ignition in the console between the front seats, take a bit to get used to. But once you do, you wonder why other carmakers aren't following suit.

The Swedish penchant for safety is also prevalent. The car carries front, torso, and side-head air bags up front, side-curtain air bags in back, traction and stability control, ABS on the front and rear disc brakes, and head rests that react to rear-end crashes to reduce whiplash. It even has front and rear fog lights.

The 9-3 SportCombi would make an economical yet fun-driving commuter. Its highway performance, creature comforts, and cargocarrying capacity are great for extended road trips as well. The car is also somewhat cosmopolitan, with a Japanese transmission and a German engine. One percent of its parts come from the U.S. and Canada, and it is assembled in Trollhatan, Sweden.

Base price is about $27,500. Options on the car included an automatic transmission ($1,250); Moonroof ($1,200); heated seats and headlamp washers ($550); OnStar ($695); and an anniversary package commemorating Saab's 60th year ($2,825). The anniversary package added some trim, paint, sound-system upgrades, and front fog lights. All these options qualify for a $1,000 "Option Discount," which brings the tab to about $34,000 with destination charges.

— Stephen J. Mraz