Station wagons, or “estates” as they are known across the pond, occupy that strange place in the auto market between SUVs, minivans and sedans. On the surface, wagons promise the holy grail of cargo schlepping and fuel sipping. But they’re not as sexy as a sedan, not as practical as a modern crossover and they can’t haul as much crap as a minivan. In the new world “station wagon” brings up PTSD style flashbacks of 1970s Country Squire wagons with a roof-rack and eight kids in the back on the way to summer camp, 8-track blazing, and your dad at the helm wishing he had a terrier and a 240Z instead. Thankfully, this is not your dad’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser. For this comparo we’ve selected the BMW 535xi Wagon, Mercedes E350 Wagon, Volvo XC70 T6 and the Volkswagen Passat 2.0T Wagon.
Outside, all four of our Euro wagons could have easily been designed by the same person. The 535xi strikes the most masculine poses with the raked headlamps and long hood. Better yet, Chris Bangle was on vacation when the rear was designed. Overall, this German speaks of solid, unfussy design.
From the land of ABBA 2008, the Volvo has lost its trademark flat rear window (and with it some cargo room). And yet it still manages to be the mid-west farm girl of the pack: wholesome and attractive but miles and miles from sexy.
VW’s Passat retains the brand’s ubiquitous chrome schnoz while seemingly longing to be a Volvo and BMW all at the same time. Way to split the difference Wolfsburg!
And last, and in this department least comes the minger of the pack: the E350. Seriously Dr. Z, what’s up with that rear? Any self-respecting modern German with a trunk like that would have been on Nip/Tuck by now. Overall winner: BMW
While three of the wagons might look similar on the outside, the inside is where the differences really show. Mercedes seems to have picked “Buick chic” for their interior design theme. While there are high quality parts in this cabin, my tester’s were ill-fitted and accompanied by cheap feeling knobs, questionable plastic and an interior design from Detroit. Contact with the steering wheel when in motion is generally considered a requirement; sadly the E350’s tiller if full of highs and lows. I dig the burl wood and leather combo, but the rubbery buttons and oddly styled airbag are serious turn offs.
The E350 wagon’s only real advantage: seven passenger capacity. The Merc is the only hauler in this matchup that offers ye olde 70s flash back rearward facing child seats. Actually, as they’re sized for Lilliputians and their use precludes cargo, forget it. Despite being the second most expensive in this lineup, the fully loaded Merc wagon delivers none of the toys its 66 grand price tag implies: no radar cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot info, no heads up display, night vision, not even parking sensors. In the gadget shoot-off, the half-price Passat beats the Merc hands down. For shame.
The 535’s interior is typical BMW: Goth. It’s assembled with proper Germanic precision, and the materials quality is suitably high. Other than anal retentive stylistic qualms about the arm rest, the awkward cup holders and the much maligned iDrive controller are the cabin’s only significant quirks. If you’re a gadget freak, the much-maligned mouse-driven controller is a boon; you can even adjust the percentage of air you or your passenger would like to come out of the dash air vents. iDrive 4.0 debuts in Spring 2009, promising even more with web updates and an integrated hard drive.
Inside the Swede, Volvo’s XC70 T6 has taken IKEA perfection to all new levels. The build quality is on par with the Bimmer’s, but Volvo’s ditched shiny wood trim for a subdued matte finish. Simplicity is the XC70s game: all the buttons are clear, logical, glove/blue rinse brigade-friendly and easy to use. Practicality is Volvo’s trump card; the XC offers a whopping 51 percent more cargo room than the BMW (seats upright) and more load carrying options than The Container Store.
The XC70 is also the only vehicle in this quartet rated to tow anything (3300lbs). Kiddie friendly features include an available dual screen entertainment system, booster seats and an available built-in kennel for multiple Vallhund transportation.
The Passat’s interior duplicates the BMW’s black theme, without the same attention to fit and finish quality. Buttons and switches feel solid, but don’t expect leather seats or other sybaritic touches. Gadget lovers will appreciate the umbrella holders, decent Nav system, keyless drive and a bevy of stanard and not-too-expensive optional features.
Crank-up the engines in these family haulers and the lines between them are drawn even more clearly. The Passat’s 2.0-liter turbo engine is an excellent four cylinder powerplant. But in this pack, two extra pistons buy far more refinement than VW’s highly evolved four-banger can muster. With 200 ponies under the hood and the lightest curb weight in the group, the Passat gets to 60 in a respectable 7.4 seconds.
The E350s 3.5-liter V6 looks great on paper. In reality, the power comes on late, especially when sampled back-to-back with the turbo engines in this crowd. And the Merc has more weight to carry around. Mercedes claims a 6.9 second 0 – 60 time, but I failed to break seven.
BMW and Volvo both come to this fight with a 3.0-liter inline six engine. BMW sports twin turbos; Volvo mixes it up with a single turbo with twin scrolls. These turbo wagons are far smoother and more aurally enjoyable than the Merc or the Vee Dub. Volvo’s T6 engine offers excellent linear response. Unfortunately, the Aisin automatic seems reluctant to shift when pressed hard; it ends up hunting for gears when things get hilly.
Push the go-pedal in anger— as grandfather clock-carrying antique dealers are wont to do— the BMW is the obvious winner. With a 5.8 second sprint to 60 (the XC70 does it in seven flat), you’ll find yourself forgetting you are piloting the mommy-mobile BMW. If “normal” cliff face depreciation isn’t painful enough, there’s even an optional manual transmission. Sleeper? Q-ship? You bet.
Throw a curve at these wagons and you can pretty much guess what happens. The Passat gets scared and runs for the edge of the road. The Volvo wallows (thanks to an SUV-like 8.3″ of ground clearance_. The Mercedes electronic nannies remind you that a station wagon is not supposed to be fun to drive. The BMW hikes up its flared fenders and carves up the road. With a near 50/50 weight distribution and a rear wheel-drive biased AWD system, the oxymoronic ultimate driving wagoneer has but one choice.
Sadly, IIHS and NHTSA crash test data is not available for all of these vehicles. So we turn to Euro NCAP, which gives a star rating along with a numeric score for adult occupants, child occupants and pedestrians hit by the car. Volvo’s five-star adult rating shows their reputation for safety is well deserved. The Passat and E350 run a close second (also five stars but a slightly lower score of 33 vs 34).
The BMW crashes in with a four-star rating and a score of 29. Child protection scores come in at four stars all around (child scores were not available for the E350). The XC70 comes equipped with Volvo’s WHIPS whiplash prevention system, rated best in the business by Euro NCAP. Combine that with built in two-stage child booster seats and an allergy free interior and the Volvo is the winner in this category.
In terms of value (a.k.a. quality for the money), there’s a clear winner. The BMW is the performance and gadget king– but that will cost you with a price tag that easily goes over $70k. The Volvo is middle of the road at $37,250 base and $53,215 as tested, offering most of the same features as the 535 with the benefit of soft roader ability. The E350 crashes this party with the second biggest price tag, the fewest goodies brought to the table and styling only its mother could love. Advantage Passat.
4. Mercedes E350 Wagon – If you want to get a wagon and all that matters to you is that it has a Mercedes badge on it, then the E350 Wagon is for you. Sure, it’s more exclusive than the XC70 and Passat , but it has to be based more on its lack of features and lackluster styling than its price tag and badge snob value would indicate. A well deserved last place goes to the E350 Wagon.
3. Volkswagen Passat 2.0T Wagon – The Passat is the undisputed value leader in this pack. The 2.0L turbo engine isn’t appreciably slower than the Volvo or Merc, but it is more frugal. Interior quality is very good for this price point and the feature/gadget compliment is competitive– with the notable exception of good iPod connectivity. Third place and best value pick is the Passat Wagon 2.0T.
2. Volvo XC70 T6 - Most wagon buyers are after kid, dog and crap schlepping ability. This is where the Volvo shines. With the largest cargo capacity, kid-friendly features and enough safety acronyms to provide Lincoln with model names for the next century, a very close second place and the overall practicality pick goes to the Vovlo XC70 T6.
1. BMW 535xi Wagon - OK, this is not one of those Car and Driver deals where the BMW always wins cause the reviewers don’t have to spend their own money and they tend to choose the best hoonmobile. The 535xi is a deeply satisfying vehicle, aesthetically and dynamically. You don’t have to be an enthusiast to love it. But if you’re not when you buy it, you will be later.