For high style plus high utility, the wagon is still a sensible choice

By , Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

Despite all the talk these days about the ''minivan revolution,'' a station wagon still makes a lot of sense. A wagon is versatile; you can pack a bunch of people and/or luggage and other stuff inside; it looks nice; and it can provide the road performance and price/fuel economy that will satisfy a lot of buyers these days.

The brand-new Buick Century and Century Estate midsize wagons are right in step with the times: High style, high utility, and front-wheel drive. Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac also have their own versions of the midsize wagon.

A top-hinged tailgate makes access to the cargo area a snap. A separate lift-up rear window does the trick if you have only a light bundle or two to put in the back.

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In comfort and performance, buyer expectations may not be quite as high for wagons as for coupes and sedans, yet the Century wagon is right up with the best.

Once you're inside with the windows all up, the depth of the sound insulation becomes apparent. The vehicle is quiet - wonderfully so - the ride sufficiently firm, and road control very good.

Equipped with the optional GM 3-liter V-6 engine, the Buick wagon packs plenty of pep, although I wouldn't expect to spin the tires on takeoff. Standard engine is 2.5 liters with 4 cylinders and electronic fuel injection. There is also GM's 4.3-liter, V-6 diesel, which has enough oomph for safe passing in most situations.

Steel-belted radial blackwall P185/75R14 tires are standard on all Century wagons with gasoline engines. Diesel-equipped wagons take the same tire style, but in the P195/75R14 configuration.

All of this costs money, but not as much as you might think. The base price of the Buick Century Estate Wagon is a mite over $10,000. But with $4,189 in test-car options, the price is bumped up to $14,700.

Some of the options are pricey these days. The Buick air conditioner, for example, carries a retail sticker of $730, while the destination charge nicks the wallet for $414. You soon discover it doesn't take long to jack up the price. Even the lighted passenger-side mirror is $58, while the power antenna costs $60.

Still, it's the options that give a car the comfortable environment more and more motorists seem to want today. For some, it may pay to provide as pleasant a decor inside the car as the wallet will stand. Automakers have the options if the motorists have the cash.

Cargo capacity is 74.4 cubic feet, or 2.6 cubic feet larger than last year's Regal wagon, which was replaced by this year's Century. A rear-facing third seat is also an option, something the '83-model Regal did not have. With the third seat, the wagon will seat up to eight people.

In total, the Century wagon has its pluses, but then every motorist will find his own minuses. One of mine is the virtual impossibility of automatically adjusting the driver's seat with the left door closed. There is hardly enough space for an outstretched hand, let alone maneuvering the controls.

Even so, the '84 Buick Century wagons show how far the car builders have traveled since the woody wagons of more than 40 years ago. They're a whole lot easier to take care of.

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