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Americans love alternatives. Even the word "alternative" is approaching overexposure. We have alternative medicine, alternative lifestyles and alternative music. But really, alternatives are about being different.
Of course "alternative" begs the question "alternative to what?" Well, in most cases it's an alternative to "normal." For example, most people in the U.S. drive a car, but many don't want to get lost in the crowd. It seems like everyone drives a Honda Civic or Toyota Camry, but those who want to be a little different might opt for a Scion tC or Mazda 6.
The same goes for minivans and SUVs — they're useful and practical, but oh so common. Thankfully, there's an alternative and it's shaping up to be the station wagon. Today's wagons can provide a sporty and fun way to skip the SUV and minivan bandwagon.
And the latest brand to join the likes of Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Subaru and Volvo in offering a wagon is Jaguar. Officially named the X-Type Sportwagon, it is Jaguar's first production station wagon. With it, Jaguar is hoping to provide one more option for entry-luxury wagon buyers and performance enthusiasts alike. But even company officials admit the Sportwagon won't break sales records as wagons are expected to account for less than 10 percent of total X-Type sales. That's OK by us; the key to any alternative is exclusivity. You can't be different if you look like everyone else — sorry, punker high school kids.
Still, the X-Type Sportwagon is an appealing car — at least on the outside. It looks sporty enough for a wagon but it's also recognizable as a Jag. Inside, the formula falls apart a bit. Like the X-Type sedans, the wagon's interior looks plain and the luxury notion is about as convincing as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition host Ty Pennington's enthusiasm.
It's not that the X-Type is a terrible place to spend time, but the few things that don't look right are so glaring. The bland center stack, cheap-feeling hatch release and hard-plastic window switch bezels are just three examples of how an upscale feel is lacking inside the X-Type.
But the car does offer versatility. The rear cargo area is very useful and provides more usable space than both the BMW 325i and Mercedes C240 wagons. The Jag's cargo area also offers underfloor storage with a power outlet and has an optional cargo net. A split hatch with a separate flip-up rear window makes getting to that cargo easier.
Under the hood, all X-Type variants now come standard with a smooth and responsive 3.0-liter V6 making 227 horsepower. It almost matches BMW's 2.5-liter straight six in terms of refinement but gleefully outpaces it with regard to power and punch. Step on the gas at virtually any speed and the Jag's six comes alive and pushes the car forward with ease. Zero to 60 comes up in 7.1 seconds.
The car isn't athletic, but it can be fun at speed. The extra weight from the tailgate and rear glass results in a sort of tail-wagging sensation during hard cornering. Still, the overall balance of the car is fine — sportier than a Mercedes-Benz C240, but softer than a 325i.
The transmission delivers smooth, positive upshifts and almost imperceptible downshifts. However, when traveling through hilly terrain, we noticed too much "hunting" as the tranny could never seem to settle on the right gear. Manually shifting through the J-gate helps matters a little, but the gated shifter's stopping points are not prominent enough. The result is that you have to look down to see exactly which gear was selected.
Admittedly, the five-speed automatic has a lot to manage as all X-Types, including the wagon, are all-wheel drive. This is a full-time system with a 40/60 torque bias toward the rear wheels. Even on wet pavement that all-wheel-drive system worked well, and power transfers between front and rear were unnoticeable from the driver seat.
Price further sets the X-Type Sportwagon apart from the crowd. Alongside similarly equipped competitors like the A4 , 325xi and C240 4Matic , the Jag comes in at $1,500 to $3,000 less. But in the end it may simply be the appeal of driving a Jaguar that makes it a reasonable choice over the competition. If the name Jaguar still brings images of prestige and class to mind, then you'll likely find the alternatives lacking. Just don't expect XJ luxury for the X-Type price.