YOU CAN SEE a lot from the driver's seat of a high-riding Club Wagon XLT van. You can even see things you aren't looking for.
A recent Saturday afternoon cruise along I-66 yielded several interesting observations: two hands belonging to different bodies furtively exchanging a rolled cigarette in a car below; a parental index finger wagging in the face of a crying young girl; and an elegantly slender left hand, laden with rings, resting on the right knee of a gentleman driver.
The Club Wagon, made by Ford Motor Co., is a snoop's delight. But it has other virtues more germaine to long-distance motoring.
It's a comfortable machine. It handles well despite its gargantuan size. It's easy to drive.
More than anything, though, the Club Wagon is fun. It turns "getting there" into a mile-by-mile adventure filled with marvelous views, accented by glimpses of human nature.
Outstanding complaints: The Club Wagon is a bit noisy, because of the growl of its 5-liter V-8 and the whine of the wind whipping about its high roofline.
The engine hump in the front of the interior cabin takes up lots of space in this otherwise commodious vehicle, reducing foot space for the front passenger.
Outstanding praise: It is hard for other motorists to sneak up on you in this van. Front, side and rear vision are superb. Distant traffic problems show up early, allowing the Club Wagon driver to plan evasive action.
There is room in this van for eight adult bodies and their luggage. Even gangly teenagers can stretch without invading each other's territory. Hmmm. Happiness is detente on wheels.
There is also this: You feel safe in this van. You can't imagine anyone running into you; and if someone does, you feel that you and your passengers will be reasonably well protected by the van's bulk.
Ride, acceleration, handling: The Club Wagon is a truck, and it sometimes feels like one over rough roads. But the van almost glides over the newer interstate highways. Acceleration is powerful enough to make you appreciate the van's wind noise, which can be a good, subconscious indicator of speed and the need to slow down. Handling is excellent.
Head-turning-quotient: The Club Wagon is one of the best-looking full-size vans in the U.S. auto market.
Sound system: Electronic, Ford factory. Speakers are well-placed throughout the cabin. Radio signal retention and tonal quality are good. I did not use the tape deck.
Mileage: Ouch! About 15 to the gallon, combined city-highway, running with five passengers and no luggage. It's no wonder that this van comes equipped with two fuel tanks. More fuel-conscious buyers should go with the standard, 4.9 liter, six-cylinder engine, which provides a little less power but saves a lot more cash. Use unleaded fuels only.
Price-as-tested: $15,510, including the optional V-8 powerplant.