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Three-car country

It became official last week: A federal Transportation Department report revealed there are now more cars in American households than there are drivers. Only 7.9 percent of households have no car at all. The average family group has 1.75 drivers and 1.9 "personal vehicles." In practice, that means one vehicle for commuting (the "station car"), one for hauling the family around and a third for "fun."

In my neighborhood, the latter category includes my friend Hans’ Porsche 356, my friend Alex’s Mercedes coupe and my friend Mike’s Miata. None of these cars is used in the regular course of business, but they come out when the sun shines. Do my friends "need" these cars? Nah, but they’re a common sight in our new century, what with the American way of life being sacred and all.

Full confession: I own not one but two "sunshine cars" — an old Dodge Dart convertible and an ancient Volvo wagon. They’re guilty pleasures, kept more for sentimental reasons than for any legitimate transportation purpose. I’ll sell them, I really will.

The station car, used for short hops to parking lot or train station to spare the "real" car, can be any old junker, and owners hope for invisibility when piloting them. Take for instance Kristen Jones, who works for a direct marketing agency. She hopes no one notices when she slinks around town in a rusty 1987 Chevy Celebrity, a hand-me-down from her grandmother.

Despite having been driven only about 50,000 miles, the Celebrity is a hideous abstract art statement, blending two shades of gold paint (one liberally applied from a touch-up can) and edged by bright brown rust. Fabric from overhead has come unmoored and hangs in the driver’s eyes.

"On the days when my husband has our real car and I’m forced to drive it, I sink low in the seat," Jones says. "I didn’t think that cars mattered much until I drove one like this!" The station car is the last resting place for the Mercury Bobcat, the Dodge Omni and the Volkswagen Fox.

OK, now we come to the third category, the core of the matter — the family hauler. I’m driving one of these this week, a pristine 2003 Ford Explorer Limited with all the family-friendly options, including a backseat DVD player with wireless headphones.

My kids love this car. They want me to keep it forever. In addition to the DVD, it has a third row of seats that they get endless pleasure folding up and down.

The Explorer, on the market since 1991, is the best-selling SUV in the U.S., moving more than 400,000 units annually. Without the runaway success of the Explorer, Ford would be hanging up a "for sale" sign in Dearborn (on its 100th birthday yet!).

Personally, I think America’s families could do better. The Explorer is comfortable, but it’s also huge; it’s hard to believe it’s one of the company’s smaller SUVs (the Expedition and the Excursion are much bigger). While it’s relatively maneuverable for an SUV, it’s hard to park and offers anemic fuel economy (low teens around town) and poor rear vision.

For moving America, I say let’s bring back the lowly mom’s taxi — the station wagon, minus the wood paneling this time. A compact workhorse wagon, with economical four-cylinder engine, three rows of seats and maybe even all-wheel drive would be a smart choice for families with a show car and a station car in the garage.

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