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Nissan wagon offers space, if not style

``They didn't give much thought to the style,'' intones the gas-station attendant as he spies the Nissan Stanza wagon pull up to a pump. Well, if he, or anyone else, doesn't like the style, he had better get used to it, because more and more ultratall minivans are hitting the road. The boxlike wagons, vans, or whatever they're called give a lot more inside space than the more standard designs, yet take up less of the road. Also, there's really room for five adults, plus cargo in the back.

What sets the Nissan Stanza wagon apart? Is it just one more entry in the swelling minivan population? Well, for one thing, the Chrysler minivans have one sliding door while the Stanza has two, one on each side. Also, the Stanza is a cinch to load or unload because, with the rear hatch up, the floor of the van is at bumper height.

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Even the highly successful Chrysler minivans are distinctive in design. And so is the Toyota minivan, with its hard-to-service engine inside the passenger space. That design is what makes the spate of minivans so endearing to more and more people on the road. They're different and they're utilitarian.

C. P. King, head of sales for the car's distributor, Nissan Motor Corporation in U.S.A., agrees the design is ``unique,'' and supersalesman Chuck King knows a good thing when he sees it. Nissan expects the wagon to grab up to 40 percent of all Stanza sales.

Wheelbase, at 99 inches, is nearly 2 inches longer than the sedan and hatchback, even though the actual length of the wagon is less, and it comes with either a 5-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy runs from the low 20s to close to 30, depending on the kind of driving you do. Given the kind of vehicle it is and the unloaded weight (a mite over 2,800 pounds), the gas mileage is highly competitive.

And the cost is in line with the competition, too. The Stanza wagon lists for $9,949, but the options are few. In other words, the vehicle is exceedingly well equipped. In the test vehicle, add $685 for air conditioning and a delivery charge of $200 -- that was it.

If you buy a vehicle such as this because of the versatility it provides, you can't lose sight of what you're driving. Even though it has anti-roll bars front and rear, the Stanza wagon is not a performance car. Obviously, the center of gravity is on the high side; so if the road is rough, you'd better keep a tight grip on the wheel. The 14-inch wheels and tire choice, however, give a surprisingly good ride.

While the 97-horsepower, 2-liter engine has plenty of snap, and the gauges and controls are handy to see and use, what happened to the positioning of the radio? The designers obviously ran out of space.

The radio could hardly have been put in a more remote location and still be controlled by the driver. It takes a deep bend and long reach for the driver to reach the buttons, leading to less than full attention to what is going on in front of the car. The manufacturer is expected to phase in some remote controls, already found on a number of cars, which will make the radio far easier to operate.

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The Stanza wagon, adapted from a Japanese version called the Prairie, would have been on the road a whole lot sooner if there had been no four-year limitation on how many vehicles the Japanese could ship to the United States.

In total, the all-new Stanza wagon is a very nice vehicle for driver and riders alike, if it meets your transportation needs. The sliding rear doors make ingress and egress a snap to the back-seat riders. You don't have to climb over or through the front-seat safety belts, either, a huge plus.

There's also a big plus for the driver. He or she sits high in the traffic stream so that visibility is superb. You can see what's going on far to the front, in back, and all around.

The Stanza wagon is the first of the '86-model cars from Nissan, still in the business of replacing its identity signs at 1,100 dealerships, switching from Datsun to Nissan, a $15 million job for which the importer is picking up the tab.

The innovative wagon is aimed at the fast-growing segment of multi-use vehicles and, like the Stanza sedan and hatchback, is front-wheel drive.

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

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