Now that the SUV will soon go the way of the Bengal tiger, the station wagon now presents itself as a great budget option. Problem is, this unique vehicle is still an endangered species due to the previous prevailing customer need for SUVs, pickups, MPVs and vans.

Surprisingly, GM Philippines has kept the "species" alive with a station wagon variant of its Optra sedan. But with seemingly perpetual gas hikes negating the use of truck-based utility vehicles, it presents itself now as a budget choice. Can the Optra wagon make buyers look past subcompact hatchbacks?

Outside the wagon sports significant changes to its mug, but retains the same dimensions as the previous model. Gone are the faux '01-'06 Honda Civic headlights; in place are slanted "eyes" that give it a resemblance to the current Subaru Impreza, highlighting the prominent gold bowtie Chevy logo in the front grille. The rear's swept-back look and new five-solid spoke wheels give oncoming motorists a ready-to-race impression, a far cry from the "hauler only" derriere design derring-do of its predecessor.

Nothing much has changed with the inside. Retained were the black steering wheel and the gray wraparound interior colorway; in place is a new radio that's MP3 ready and can accommodate six CDs instead of five, along with larger, more user-friendly buttons and knobs for easy read and reach. However, the steering wheel's stereo/horn controls are virtually in the same areas as the pre-2005 Optra. It would be better if there were volume controls on the steering wheel, aside from the on/off, mute and function/radio toggle buttons. If you have a family and you have to deal with toddler sibling warfare in the back row, a pre-teen going ballistic in the shotgun seat AND the radio's on, volume controls on the steering wheel are a much-needed help. And finding the horn buttons are difficult; they're located at the nine and three o' clock steering wheel positions, creating instant opportunities for sprained or dislocated thumbs when depressing the horn.

One is overwhelmed by that "new car smell" once you plop yourself into the plush moquette seats. Unfortunately the smell permeates into the aircon (a/c) once you turn on the blower knobs. Perhaps it's the odor of the sound absorbent foam or part of the wagon's noise suppression system entering the vents, but the a/c can make occupants dizzy if you turn it on and drive immediately with every window and door closed.

The Optra wagon's extra rear real estate lives up to its billing, swallowing two DHL Jumbo boxes and a 13.4 kg LPG tank. The rear seats offer a 60-40 split-folding function, but do not exactly fold flat or tumble like the Honda Jazz's ULT (Utility, Long and Tall) rear seats. The Optra wagon also lacks a rear hatch window recess for easier opening, a problem for the driver who has a bevy of groceries in both hands and can barely open the rear hatch. At least the OE metal mesh partition separating the cargo area from the second row is gone, a great help when trying to reach for items in the aforementioned area while the vehicle is moving.

The 1.6L Ecotec II's narrow powerband and a quirky a/t combine to give sluggish acceleration, with the latter frequently playing between first and second gears in traffic. You have to get the throttle to the redline and smack the a/t through the jiggly gate to second gear for decent downshifts. Even then you only stay for a moment in second due to its short ratio, and end up out of the power curve due to the tall third gear. As a result tested top speed (198 kph) and consumption 7.78 km/l (four days, mixed driving) are a given but certainly disconcerting.

The P869,000 08 Optra retains the unique Euro-Ride Tuning suspension found in its predecessor, specially designed to accommodate load distribution for any road condition. Road irregularities are dampened with ease, and traction from the Maxxis M.A.P. 195/55R15s break at 90-95 kph. Steering is surprisingly light, but gives enough feedback for the driver to discern at the slightest understeer. Also, the brakes are surprisingly strong and the ABS wakes up when you need it. Lastly, the side mirrors have turn signals and lateral view up to the second lane of sight on both flanks.

The 08 Chevrolet Optra wagon still manages to present itself as a bargain carrier for the anti-SUV crowd. The new exterior look and interior upgrades are great positives, but in order for buyers to look past the Mazda 3 hatchback it must provide some serious performance thrills for the perpetually-on-the-hurry yuppie, and provide accommodations for large, odd-shaped loads.