It came in the midst of a reluctant spring, when the calendar said fair weather but the gray day and slow rain said something else.

It was a racy red 2003 Suzuki Aerio SX, a small station wagon with an SUV's swagger and a sports car's soul. That explains the SX part of the Aerio wagon's name. It means "sport crossover."

There were other test vehicles in the driveway -- a desert-gold Chrysler Pacifica of mixed identity -- part minivan, part wagon, part SUV -- and a totally plush Toyota Sienna minivan of similar hue.

There also was the black-on-black Jaguar XK-R convertible I had driven a few days earlier before spring turned fickle, withdrew its sun, and dumped thoughts of love and romance into a cold shower. Looking at it through my picture window, with the background music of water flowing through house gutters, was disconcerting.

I had to go into the city. I took the Aerio, and I liked it so much I drove it the rest of the week.

The Aerio is a swift, gutsy, exceptionally agile little wagon -- an urban street fighter if ever there was one. It easily slips in and out of tight creases in city traffic, and it's equally adept at fitting into legal, minuscule parking spaces on city streets.

But its practical virtues aren't its strongest selling points. People expect small cars to be practical, sensible, which is why those who buy small cars buy them.

Yet, small cars do not sell well, not even when gasoline prices are rising, war is raging and the national economy is heading south. Practicality doesn't speak to the heart, stir the soul. It's a gray suit in a world desiring pastel colors.

Thus, the composite goodness of the little Aerio SX is that it's willing to carry you and your stuff, save you money at the dealership and the gas pump -- and give you one heck of a good time.

The latter attribute is derived from some old-school alchemy -- stuffing a relatively powerful engine, 140 horsepower in this case, into a tiny, lightweight body. The Aerio SX, available in front-wheel and all-wheel drive, has a short wheelbase, 97.6 inches. The tested front-wheel-drive version of the wagon, equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, weighs 2,630 pounds.

Of course, it isn't enough to have a hot-to-trot engine to make a fun car. A well-balanced suspension helps, and the Aerio SX has one. It includes independent MacPherson struts with coil springs and stabilizer bars front and rear, with lower control arms up front. Fifteen-inch-diameter wheels complete the handling package.

It is a refreshing little car, very pleasant road company in good weather and bad.