In the new nomenclature of the automotive industry, a "wagon" is a vehicle that bridges the gap between a sedan and a sport-utility vehicle.

That means a "wagon" can be a traditional station wagon, a minivan (long wagon) or a crossover vehicle (essentially a wagon that looks like an SUV).

The term has been stretched to fit the product.

Consider the 2005 Ford Freestyle. It looks like a compact SUV. But it employs the same underpinnings used by the Volvo S60, Volvo S80, Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans. It also owes much of its being to Volvo's V70 and XC70 wagons, as well as to the Volvo XC90 SUV.

As I've said previously, much of this component and platform sharing -- a consolidation of parts, if you will -- comes from ongoing corporate consolidations in the car industry. Ford Motor Co. owns Sweden's Volvo automaking operation, which means Ford now uses Volvo to come up with some of its better ideas.

The new Ford Freestyle may be one of them. The caveat is needed because the Freestyle, like others of its genre, is a niche-chaser. That means it is aimed at a specific audience -- families who need seating for up to seven people, who want something other than a traditional station wagon or minivan but who don't want the fuel costs or the usually unused off-road prowess of a genuine SUV.

The trouble with chasing niches is that niches change, often quickly. The Freestyle was conceived several years ago in the late evening of the U.S. auto industry's realization that not everybody buying an SUV really wanted one. Many of those buyers actually were looking for something else -- a car/station wagon with some SUV attributes.

Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru cars and wagons, knew that all along, which is why Subaru never went whole-hog into the SUV business. Instead, it rolled out all-wheel-drive crossover models such as the Subaru Forester and Outback.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. added crossover models such as the Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. DaimlerChrysler brought forth the Chrysler Pacifica, and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac Division rolled out the Cadillac SRX.

Ford gave birth to its compact Escape but chose to sell it as a genuine, rock-stomping, off-road SUV. That message did not play well with the people who really would have preferred a wagon. Now Ford comes a tad late with the Freestyle, a crossover vehicle designed to bring out the wagon lover in all of us.

It is a good piece of work -- solid, well crafted and gifted with a remarkably comfortable interior. Exterior styling hews to Ford's odd affection for homely bodies. But what the heck; we spend most of our time inside vehicles, not outside them.

A big selling point is that you can put up to seven people inside the Freestyle and still have space in the rear of the vehicle, thanks to a clever storage well, to haul along enough groceries to feed them.

The Freestyle uses the same 203-horsepower, 3-liter V-6 found in the Ford Five Hundred sedan (reviewed in On Wheels Oct. 17). Some automotive media critics have labeled that engine a wimp, as they did the Five Hundred. I disagree. You can get a ticket in the Freestyle just as quickly as you can get one speeding in anything else.

There are three versions of the Freestyle -- the base SE, more upscale SEL and the top-of-the-line Limited. They are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive will save you more money in the new-car showroom and at the gas pump.

I sampled the all-wheel-drive version of the Freestyle SEL and found it much to my liking. It accelerated and handled well. At this writing, it is offered without stability control and has received some demerits for that. But it remained perfectly stable on good and bad roads. It also performed commendably in several rainstorms, never once losing its footing or swaying dangerously on slippery roads.