By on September 8, 2006

2004_06_11_nomad14sm222.jpgIf Mom and Dad had it, we don’t want it. The principle has been an article of faith since homo sapiens first stalked the savannah. Bouffant hairstyles? Brylcreem? Gedoutta here. Eighteen-hour girdles? Puh-lease. When it comes to vehicles, there’s nothing stodgier than Mom's old station wagon. If thirty or forty-somethings think about the genre at all, it’s with mocking derision. From National Lampoon’s “Family Truckster” to That 70’s Show’s Vista Cruiser, the station wagon is the ultimate icon of suburban conformity and, well, blah. It really IS your father’s Oldsmobile.

Station wagons were born just after the turn of the century. Resort hotels shuttled wealthy guests and their baggage to and from the railroad station in large, open-sided motor vehicles. By the early twenties, these “depot hacks” were fully enclosed. In the thirties, the wood-paneled trucks (a.k.a. “woodies”) somehow became a status symbol for America’s gin and tonic set (Country Squire indeed). After the war, the first steel bodied station wagon was suburban by name, suburban by nature. Hundreds of thousands of station wagons roamed the burgeoning 'burbs, proferred by all but the toniest car brands. 

By the early eighties, the genre was kaput. Grown-up baby boomers would rather give up smoking pot than adopt the vehicles driven by their parents– even when their selfish genes forced them into more “responsible” transportation. Sales of the venerable station wagon dried up like a Death Valley rain puddle. Buyers flocked to the mini-van, a suburban version of the hippy love bus, and the SUV, a macho machine that helped them live out Walter Mitty fantasies of long treks through Marlboro country. Now that SUVs are PC pariahs and minivans makers continue to insist on building boring boxes, could American buyers be ready for a rebirth of the station wagon?

Some would say the genre never really died. Mercedes, Volvo and Saab have been building wagons since ever, appealing to a small but gradually increasing fan base of eccentrics, antique collectors and eccentric antique collectors. In 1995, Subaru butched-up their plain-Jane Legacy wagon with bigger tires and an aggressive grille (both obvious SUV cues). Sensibly enough, the company avoided the “station wagon” moniker, fearing that the name would connect the design to Mom and Dad’s vinyl-clad monstrosity. They called the Outback a “Sports Utility Wagon" and sold them by the boatload.

Although the Outback was but a blip on the automotive radar back in the days when SUV’s ruled the earth, it won a devoted following. The Volvo XC70 and Audi Allroad followed in the Outback’s muddy tracks. And now that the Outback and the other “macho wagons” have established credibility (especially in the Snow Belt), station wagons are starting to assume a more prominent role in manufacturers' fleets. The fact that DCX chose to introduce their chop top Dodge Magnum as a station wagon– rather than a four-door sedan– shows that at least ONE domestic manufacturer thinks a station wagon can be cool.

I’ve always believed wagons were God’s chosen vehicles. After all, what can a four-door sedan do that a station wagon can’t? Other than the sedan’s [highly subjective] advantage in the appearance department, nothing. Pistonheads will protest that station wagons don’t accelerate, corner or brake as well as their non-wagon counterparts. And no wonder; manufacturers usually delete the sedan’s high-performance parts from the station wagon's OEM equipment list.  When a station wagon gets the right greasy bits (think WRX, Magnum SRT-8) their performance is pretty damn close to the trunk-equipped version– and they retain the utility that makes a wagon, well, a wagon.

Face it: utility rules. Driving to work is pretty much the same whether you’ve got a sedan, a wagon or a coupe. But try picking up a load of lumber at Home Depot, taking the family camping at Yellowstone or moving a couple of best buds across town. The station wagon’s versatility quickly makes itself known. The way back's extra storage capacity is easily accessible through the wagon's low and level tailgate. With fold flat seats and a mesh barrier (that keeps cargo from turning into ICBM’s), you can stack all and sundry to the roof. And the wagon’s longer roofline allows easier mounting of cargo like bicycles or kayaks– one reason forward-looking car companies market “sport wagons” to young, hip singles.

SUVs, of course, also offer some of these advantages. But they come with excessive size, lousy fuel economy and poor handling. Ah, but has the stodgy station wagon finally jettisoned its cultural baggage? Uh, no. But with the cost of fuel heading hovering around $3 a gallon, an increasing number of American buyers are willing to sacrifice style points for utility. I hate to say it, but maybe Mom wasn't so stupid after all.  

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65 Comments on “Wagons HO!...”

  • avatar

    I curse Subaru for not offering the STi in wagon form. That would probably be the most perfect vehicle ever created. Aesthetics notwithstanding, of course.

  • avatar

    The Mercedes E55 AMG Station Wagon just missed being TTAC's Car of the Year last year (beat out by the 987 Boxster S). My God, what a machine.

  • avatar

    My parents never owned a station wagon. But they did own an SUV. Wagons are cool, especially sporty ones. SUVs are mommymobiles, they just suck. Maybe that’s why wagons are getting popular again, a whole couple of generations of people whose parents didn’t own wagons but did own SUVs.

  • avatar

    With the wagons, it’s been there done that. It’s the crossover SUV’s turn..

    My parents drive a ’98 Grand Cherokee. They are looking to replace it with a Edge/Compass/Escape/something.

  • avatar

    I always love the Volvo 850R station wagon. Every thing is there: speed (turbo engine 240hp), safety (Volvo…) and space.

  • avatar

    AMEN! I think the Avants are the best looking of breed but just have never warmed to Audi. I agree completely with RF about the Merc but since i can’t afford an E55 wagon (soon to be E63) i’ll wait for the next gen BMW 535 sport wagon. The rumor mill has it that the 5 series will get the twin turbo mill now appearing in the 3 series coupe. A BMW wagon with 300hp/300twisters and mileage in the mid 20s, now that’s a real SUV :o)))

  • avatar

    A coupe looks much better if I am buying for style. If I need something practical, a wagon is just so much more than a sedan.

    All I see when I look at a sedan is wasted space above the trunk.

  • avatar

    Wagons have been making a comeback and will continue to do so. The WRX wagon is more of a hatch than a wagon to me. The Magnum is the first wagon actually marketed toward men and I think has been fairly successful as well.

    The time is ripe for a performance wagon such as an STI Legacy, Lancer Evo or Mazdaspeed 6. The problem with the SRT8 Magnum is it only comes as an auto. While they won’t sell in large volumes they will get great reviews and marketing for their builders and will be affordable to average buyers. I would have loved an Audi S4 Avant but they just cost too much.

    I do think CUVs will still sell more, many prefer a higher seating position that wagons just don’t offer.

    Hell I’d take an Lotus wagon if they made one and could afford it.

  • avatar
    Joe ShpoilShport

    I had a hankerin’ (hey I was going to use another word that begins with an “h’), a hankerin’ I tell you, to get a used Grand Marquis wagon in the nineties. Peg, we called her. I figured, (and rightly so) here you had a vehicle that you could load a 4 X 8 sheet of something, unload it and take myself and eight others out for an ice cream. Not that I would ever do such an insane thing.

    Utility does rule. From the shag wagons (carpeted walls, not being randy – necessarily) to minivans and SUV’s, the same theme in various evolutionary steps.

  • avatar

    DCX should bring the European 300c touring estate to the US when the new model comes in 2010. And GM should consider estate versions of the full-sized Zeta cars as well. Someone will put fake paper wood on the sides but oh well, it’s a small price to pay to get minivans and midsized SUVs off non snow belt roads.

  • avatar

    Mazda6 hatchback (“5 door”).

    It looks as good as the sedan (it looks just like the sedan except for the windshield wiper on the back), it has the better back seats of the wagon, and has all the cargo room of the wagon.

    The best of all worlds.

  • avatar

    Hutton, I agree with you, except …
    where would Subaru put the giant spoiler on the WRX STi wagon?

  • avatar

    The WRX (non-STi) wagons have large hatch spoilers. They look pretty good. Plus, wagons/hatches have more weight over the rear and that helps handling too.

  • avatar

    Our family grew up with two of the GM B-body wagons, the Chevy Impala and Buick Electra. My parents always insisted one of us brothers could fit between the driver and front passenger seats, which was a load of crock. The Chevy had a horrible smelling, nausea/vomiting-inducing powder blue vinyl interior. The Buick had the rear facing 3rd row seat which was clad in slightly less cheap vinyl, unlike the rest of the car’s pseudo pillowy and uncomfortable crap-brown cushions. Both reeked of badge engineering with identically cheap switchgear and plastic inside. The sight of fake plastic wood sagging along the tops of the doors of the Buick was my pathetic final memory, preceded only by the fizzing sealed-for-life battery acid shorting out the wiring when it was just 4 years old.

    The ‘rents eventually got a clue and they were succeded by Dodge Grand Caravans, about 7-8 years after I told them to.

    25 years later, my 2nd gen Sienna weighs the same as the B-wagons, holds 8 passengers much more comfortably and a lot more stuff in a smaller footprint. The full sized station wagon is dead, and good riddance.

  • avatar

    Uberwagens represent.

    Audi has been doing the uberwagen Avant for some time now. For years the highest performance models bearing the four rings of corporate unity have been Avants (wagons). If you are going to go fast, might as well be able to take yer crap with ya wherever you need to go and in one hell of a hurry.

    RS2… 1994 saw the introduction of the wicked inbred known as the RS2 (308hp L5 turbo). With some help from family friend Porsche (5×130 lug pattern) wheels, mirrors, brakes, some engine tuning and interior upgrades, different bodystyling at front and rear etc etc… the RS2 was a five door Porsche of sorts. Of course with the P car script on badges, calipers and intake manifold the origin of the RS2’s sporty demeanor was unmistakeable.

    S6+ 1997 ~340hp High output 4.2L V8 & manual gearbox packaged neatly into an A6 avant. Looks like a mild mannered 230hp S6… moves like an S6 with a big turbo.

    RS4 2001 380hp fortified 2.7T with tuning by recently acquired cosworth. Think S4 with a widened body and a much more urgent manner. Manual gearbox only.

    RS6 03 450hp A6 avant with biturbo V8 with fender flares and an automatic gearbox.

    RS6+ 480hp Same as above with hotter software.

    RS4 06 420hp N/A 4.2L V8 screaming redline north of 8200rpm.

    All of the above as S or RS line cars are quattro AWD equipped.

    While I love my A4 sedan… my Avant is just so much more functional without being any less attractive or any less fun to drive save for the tiptronic which is no substitute for a third pedal. As a kid I used to loathe people driving red volvo wagons… I had formed a cute little phrase about red volvo wagon life. I currently live blue Audi Avant life without regret or lingering what-ifs.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    I wouldn’t feel at all embarassed to own a Magnum SRT8.

  • avatar

    Every car that I’ve ever owned has been a wagon, strangely enough, just like my father…

    I started out with a crappy Buick Century, with an anemic 6. A little bit of ingenuity (adding a K&N air filter, and flipping the filter cover upside town to give me better breathing) gave me a pretty quick machine. I never raced it, but I didn’t curse it on an onramp. It gave its life when a turd in a neon came across the line and hit me in the driver side B pillar. It spun me around 360, but my (future) wife and I walked away absolutely fine.

    It was replaced by a Volvo 240. While not nearly as powerful, it was a reliable, utilitarian vehicle that was perfect for my last year in college, and my first two in the real world. A bad relay on the tranny got it traded in on my current wheels, but damn I miss that car. It was a champ, more room than I knew what to do with it, and an errant sentra bounced off it, leaving the car and I unscathed.

    It was replaced with a 99 Black Volvo V70glt. It’s not quite the R (lacking AWD), but for being wrong-wheel drive, and somewhat floaty (which I swear will be taken care of one of these days thanks to IPD), but a great car to drive. I’ve never topped it out, but it gets up to 90 with PLENTY of pull still in it. It’s a turbo 5.

    Volvo has the wagon game figured out. I plan to replace this one with another one. Like their tagline says: “For life”…

    I LOVE the utility. I’ve never had to say “sorry, that won’t fit in the car” and the ONLY complaint I’ve got is the mid 25mpg gas milage, but then again, that ALWAYS seems to improve when the wife drives (because unlike I, she doesn’t trive like a dick :-) )

  • avatar

    Ask an SUV, or even crossover, driver why they like sitting higher up, and they can’t actually articulate it. They just do. Simple physics says it’s going to make the vehicle handle like crap, but that’s okay. It’s just good to sit up high.

    Wagons look better than sedans in the modern aerodynamic styling. The wedge shape works well with the rounded edges and stepped-back noses of today. Sedans, however, should always be boxes. The squarer the better.

  • avatar

    I love ‘sport’ wagons. The Audi A4 Avant is the best looking wagon to me today. And now that my wife has had the baby, we’re going to trade in our A4 Sedan for one.

  • avatar


    I agree – an SUV is a wagon with 1500 lb added, and with high center of gravity.

    A co-worker’s friend died while driving a Ford Explorer to Los Angeles . . . rolled over after driver tried avoidance manuever. I thought to myself – this type of vehicle is really not the best for highspeed highway use .

    Sitting up high *feels* safer. With modern noise insulation you lose all sensation of speed . . . sitting safely high above the traffic.

  • avatar

    I’ve wanted a wagon since I was old enough to drive (1986, btw). At that age I wanted one because I could haul a load of friends, gear and beer (probably why my parents wouldn’t let me have that green 1980 Volvo wagon I wanted).

    Now that I am a parent, I still want one. In fact, my dream dadmobile is a 1956 Chevrolet Nomad very much like the one pictured above except in black. I just love the mental image of SUV-driving suburbanites cowering in fear when they hear my Nomad’s smallblock roar when I pull up to the daycare. Then I like to imagine the youngun’s playmates begging for a smokey burnout right there in the drop-off lane. Oh how I do dream.

    But, alas, upgrading a Nomad with all the requisite safety features to appease Mom is just NOT in the budget.

    But Mom did do a smokey burnout in the Magnum RT recently. Scared the salesman pretty good, too. Rearward visibility killed that candidate.

    Maybe I can talk her into an Audi A4 or Allroad, Volvo V70r or a BMW 530. We’ll get the Nomad when we retire.

  • avatar

    Check out the new Ford Falcon wagon to be built on the Mazda6 platform and sold in the US

  • avatar

    Confessions of a Wagon-aholic:

    The first car I ever drove — my family’s early-60s Pontiac wagon. I was 4 years old. I was playing in the front seat in our driveway when I unknowingly shifted it into Neutral. It rolled down the driveway, across the street and into the juniper bush in our neighbor’s yard. Both wagon and 4-year-old survived unscathed (except for the 4-year-old’s spanked rear end…:-D…)

    The first car I wanted after leaving college — A 240-series Volvo. I ended up with a sedan, but I still carry a small torch for a 240 Turbo wagon (last made in 1984).

    My last three cars —- 1988 Acura Integra (5-door hatchback), 2002 Mazda Protege5, 2004 Mazda 3 Five-door.

    My next car(?) — 2008 Honda Fit Hybrid

    Last weekend I was at a classic car/hot rod show in Ventura, CA. I found myself drawn most strongly to wagon-type vehicles (Chevy Nomads, Woodies, etc.)

    I guess I’m hopeless….

    Buzz L.

  • avatar

    The car my dad bought for me to use while I was home from college on summer break was an old Dodge Polara wagon. Crap-brown color, AM radio, no AC. The gas guage didn’t work, so I had to check the gas tank with a yardstick!

    I loved that wagon. It was free, it got me to and from my job and I didn’t have to ride the bus anymore. I could park it anywhere without fear of it being stolen! It was a rust-bucket, but I washed it and used it to go on dates!

    I also hated that wagon. I dreaded the summer drives to work where the meaning of “air conditioning” was rolling down the side windows and the back hatch window and trying to maintain at least 50 MPH on the rush hour-clogged freeways.

    But it still beat the bus ride.

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot! We used it in the fall and spring to cart all my junk to and from my college four hours away.

  • avatar

    Personally, I’ll go with the much more practical (useful) SUV. Yeah, I might pay a few hundred more a year for gas, but when I consider the hives and uncontrollable spasms it causes the PC enviro freaks… well, it’s worth it.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive in a ’66 Ford “Country Sedan” (no plastic wood on the side…) and have always been partial to wagons. The car actually seemed to have better weight distribution and handling than the plowing sedans of the day. (I remember regularly pulling a 4 wheel drift through a wide decreasing radius turn in the neighborhood … I’ll bet my father wondered why the sides of the tires were always chewed up!)

    I later bought a ’98 MB E320 wagon and it was fast and practical. A little noisier than the sedan, but still returns 26 mpg in mixed hwy/city driving after 100K miles. Too bad we couldn’t get the diesel version (same performance with 30% better economy) or the performance versions (until recently).

    I’m not sure if it counts as a wagon, but we now have a Scion xB which is surprisingly nice and roomy as well as practical. Sedans are just too limiting for me … I have stuff to haul!

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Stuart McLeod, who ran a collector car auction firm in Kirkland, Washigton from 1974 to 1994 (and still maintains a license for such) once told me, “The price of new cars brings up the price of old cars.”
    But in a strange case of irony, I believe that the value of vintage station wagons has increased the value of new station wagons – value not necessarily cost. One doesn’t want to be a cynic about it; and a cynic was once defined by Oscar Wilde as “someone who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”
    While it is true that the horrendously boring station wagons (in the equally vapid Chevy Chase movies) didn’t help the new Audis and Volvos, the “woody wagons” now on demand at auctions across the country might have. Last year’s Kirkland (WA) Concours d’Elegance – which is happening again this year on the shores of Lake Washington on Septmember 9 – had a special class for woody-wagons. No one could dispute the coolness of the lovely old Chrysler wood-paneled station wagon that won that class.
    Ford once built real wood-paneled station wagons that car collectors with bucks park right next to their Dusenburgs and Auburns. The new honcho at Ford might want to consider such a “halo car” such as a real woody-wagon’s effect on Ford’s aura with enthusiasts. Of course, from what one can gather, he indeed might be a man who knows too much about the cost of things, and not enough about their value.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Spelling error in last post: it should be “September 9.”

  • avatar

    Martin, your right that station wagons are probably the sort of vehicle that make the most sense…I still dont like them. I just hate their looks. With one exception: Audi! Their A4 & A6 wagons are awesome. If I had to buy a wagon it would be an Audi.

  • avatar

    As a first time home owner I needed a vehicle that could haul furniture and perform general homeowner duties. An SUV was out of the question; not because they are gas guzzlers but I just hate the driving dynamics. I purchased a new Mazda 6 Sport Wagon last July. 3.0L, 5-spd manual and I couldn’t be happier. I think of trading it occasionally (for another wagon, I dream of S4 Avants and V70R’s) but I only owe another 8k and it’s at the point where I really don’t care if it gets scratched or a scuff in the interior. Maybe in another year when the new V70 comes out I’ll reconsider.

    Long live the wagon!

  • avatar

    Last fall my wife and I searched everywhere for a good, affordable station wagon. They are the perfect car for a small family, IMHO. We ended up with a Saturn Vue, if only because I received a discount for GM and Ford products through work and neither company makes a decent small wagon. The Saturn is nice, really. But in my heart, I’m left longing for something a little closer to the ground.

  • avatar

    ZoomZoom said: “I loved that wagon… I could park it anywhere without fear of it being stolen!”

    When I bought my building in (urban) Hoboken 20 years ago, it was still a more or less abandoned city. The owner before me came home at 6 every day, and there was a spot big enough for his car waiting right out in fornt of the house for his old station wagon, every day. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the real, and major drawbacks to these things: There aren’t parking spaces on most city streets that are long enough for them, not anymore.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    I’m glad other Wagonophiliacs are coming out of the (vinyl?) woodwork. As for the CUV/XUV/Wagon distinction, considering that most XUV/CUV are built on car platforms (as a wagon is), I’d argue that the CUV/XUV is closer in identity to a true wagon than it is to an SUV, whose style it apes.

    BTW, wasn’t Chevy supposed to be introducing a new Nomad sport wagon? I seem to remember hearing something about that a few years ago.

    My family’s first “big” wagon was also a Nomad, a circa 1969 version (by which time the “Nomad” name was just a model of a mid-sized wagon, not the two-door sporty thing from the 50’s) so I’ve always got a place in my heart for the name. Plus, it seems so fitting for a wagon anyway – the perfect vehicle for suburban “nomads” wandering across the great plains in search of ice-cream sundaes and the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine!

  • avatar
    Jay Shoemaker

    I am a baby boomer who grew up in the city and was always jealous of those suburban rich kids whose parents drove station wagons.

    I have owned some memorable wagons- the Audi S4 Avant, Audi S6, BMW 540 and the most impressive of all- the E55. I enjoy being a powerful yet invisible hooligan.

  • avatar

    My mom owned this beast which was the car I had to drive when I turned 16 (same sh-t-brown color even). I haaaaated it, thought it was totally embarrasing. But now looking at it… it’s so cute I want one. I have a weird thing for those old boxy 70s-80s japanese cars…

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Boy, is it reassuring to see so many car guys (you too, Lesley) in favor of wagons for all the right reasons. Ours is an A4 Avant, and this is one thread where I agree with just about every commenter.

  • avatar

    I myself have never liked wagons very much, when I was a young kid in the 70s they seemed to be everywhere. Big, ugly wood panelled monstrosities that were about as sexy and fun to drive as Depends undergarments.

    But, I have to say I like the small wagons that are around now, like Mazda’s Protege 5. It is a wagon that is still sporty somehow. I would definitely be willing to drive one like that.

  • avatar

    I’ve got 4 kids and am a big wagon fan. I had an 89 volvo for 13 years and just last year bought my dream car a V70 T5. We use the volvo as the hauler and put the kids in a minivan, but if they ever managed to make a minivan with some kind of cargo capacity without losing all the seats, I’d buy it in a heatbeat.

    I spent most of my childhood in a 73 Bonneville wagon with a decklid the size of an aircraft carrier, so maybe I just never grew up.

  • avatar
    Carmongering Lunatic

    You figure out how the auto manufacturers can get away with selling station wagons under the light truck CAFE rules instead of the passenger car CAFE rules, and you’ll see a revival. Because CAFE, not taste, is what killed the station wagon. People didn’t switch from wagons to Voyagers because the minivan was cooler, but because the compromises necessary to make a station wagon avoid shredding CAFE were too painful in size and performance.

    SUVs? Because Chrysler got away with classing the minivan as a light truck, light truck sales as a percentage of the market shot up. So the automakers responded to this “popularity of light trucks” by adding the comfort touches to their trucks that made them viable as passenger cars instead of work vehicles. The SUV boom then happened after those changes were made, a second-stage consequence of the death of the station wagon, not a cause of it.

    So no, we are not poised for a station wagon revival. Because while minivans, SUVs, and “crossover vehicles” can get away with the “truck” CAFE categorization, station wagons are passenger cars. CAFE means you can have wagons uncompromised, affordable, or sold in large numbers — pick two and only two..

  • avatar

    I once owned a wagon. It was called a “Sport Wagon”. It had one of the top motors for this vehicle at the time. It had a body colored grill (this was when chrome was out and the monochromatic look was in), sport mirrors, big tires, cast aluminum wheels, driving/fog lights, and lower body cladding.

    The car? It was 1994 Dodge Grand Caravan SE Sport Wagon. A wagon CAN do anything that a sedan can do and more. But a minivan can do anything that a wagon can do – and more. It just looks even more uncool than a wagon.

  • avatar

    Again, does anyone know where I can get myself a Turbo Diesel AWD wagon with SMG that isn’t made by VW?

    Or am I just SOL.

  • avatar

    “People didn’t switch from wagons to Voyagers because the minivan was cooler, but because the compromises necessary to make a station wagon avoid shredding CAFE were too painful in size and performance.” – Carmongering Lunatic

    I doubt that. The ’91 Chevy Cavalier VL wagon and sedan were about 100 lbs apart and had offered nearly identical fuel economy.

    Volvo wagons have always had almost identical fuel economy to their sedan counterparts (I’ve owned ’em).

    Detroit found that it could sell SUVs at a bigger profit. People needing the hauling capability of a wagon were wililng to switch and Detroit was able to cut wagons from the product offerings.

    We’ve owned a few wagons and I think they make a lot of sense. We’ve had an ’82 Cavalier wagon (it would do better than 40mpg on the highway) and 2 Volvo 240 wagons (excellent transportation, near 30mpg on the highway).

    I wish there were more choices in compact and medium wagons but there are still a few. The Matrix/Vibe is a useful little car – think of it as a Corolla wagon. I’m looking at those – and the Scion xB.

  • avatar

    I’m of the generation that grew up in the back seat of a minivan (a pair of Grand Caravans), and although I don’t want one, it has nothing to do with my parents. Minivans (or at least the one my parentals own) are terrible to drive. It’s just too big and tippy.

  • avatar

    The only one I ever owned was a 88 Chevy Celebrity Eurosport. What a disaster that was.

    Maybe I’m sick, twisted, just getting old, or all of the above but I actually like minivans. Yeah, they’re not great at carving corners but for a daily driver I’ve come to prefer them over cars. I can sit in a minivan without getting poked by something (shifter, left corner of the dash/center console, some part of the door, etc). I find the sitting position in a minivan to be more comfortable and I feel less crowded.

    I was out this morning sitting in and test driving a bunch of stuff at a local used dealer. Just about the only cars I actually liked sitting in were a Buick, a Cadillac, and a couple Olds 88’s and the biggest thing I liked about them was the complete lack of a center console. I did take a couple wagons for a spin. A 96 Camry with a DOHC 3.0L V6 and a 02 Saturn LW200. The Camery was nice, but kinda cramped. Took off like a scalded cat when I stuck my foot in it, though. For some reason the original owner thought to spend the money on the hot motor, gold-plated badges, and a third row seat but neglected to upgrade the audio system up beyond base-level tin-horn. The Saturn was no slouch, which was surprising given its 2.2L 4-banger. It was actually one of the cars with the least amount of driver poke-age as well. Too bad it still reaked from the previous owners smoking habit.

    BTW Martin, what gives with “minivans makers continue to insist on building boring boxes”? Between the current Nissan Quest, Honda Odyssey since 2000, and all of the Toyota Siennas I would have to disagree. The Quest is anything but. The Honda’s sheer size gives it an intimidation factor on par with SUV’s. The first gen Sienna is kinda cute and the second gen is trying to ape the Honda and not doing too bad a job at it. Yeah, the DCX and Fords are boring but things might change there. DCX is bringing out their redesigned minivan soon and Ford is dropping their’s. The current GM’s are far to ugly to be considered boring. I personally find most sedans to be utterly boring, and thus most wagons by extension since their built on the platforms of said sedans. The first sedan or wagon to really turn my head in a while has been the Magnum and its ilk.

  • avatar

    Again, does anyone know where I can get myself a Turbo Diesel AWD wagon with SMG that isn’t made by VW?

    Or am I just SOL.

    We heard you the first time. Dude, c’mon. In the US? You know you’re SOL.

    That is just not the market reality in the US. But keep the dream alive though.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive in a 1969 Chevy Townsman station wagon (which was the equivalent of the Chevy BelAir that year). It was a step above the Brookwood (Biscayne), but below the Kingswood (Impala) and the Kingswood Estate (Caprice). No AC, just an AM radio, and a really mushy, wallowy suspension. But it also had a 300 horse-power 350 cubic-inch V-8 with a 4-barrel carburetor mated to a 3-Speed Turbo-Hydramatic transmission. The engine had lots of torque and the transmission was one of the smoothest-shifting ones I’ve ever come across. The car seemed surprisingly fast, but maybe that was just because the suspension was so mushy you were afraid to drive very fast in anything except a straight line.

    The seats were sticky vinyl, thought the front seat was fairly comfortable. The back seat was terrible because the cushion sunk when you sat on it and then you ended up sitting below what was supposed to be the lower back support. The full-sized spare tire was stored in this neat storage compartment built into the side of the rear cargo area and there was this ENORMOUS storage compartment below the cargo floor that could hold a large suitcase out-of-sight.

    The Townsman would become my first car when my parents bought themselves a new ’77 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser. I used the Townsman to commute to college every day, 25 miles away from home, my freshman year.
    The college was located on a hill top and I remember driving up the snow-covered street to the parking lot on the top of the hill (thanks to all that road-hugging weight and the Posi-Traction differential) and passing all these rich Iranian exchange students in their Z-28s, Trans Ams, and Corvettes, who were spinning their wheels at the bottom of the hill.

    I also spent quite a bit of time driving my folks’ Custom Cruiser. It was from the first year that GM down-sized their full-sized cars. With its big bumpers sticking out, it was actually the exact same length as the older Chevy, but it was narrower and didn’t have as much room inside. The seats were nicer (brown velour), but the back seat was still very uncomfortable, it had a very short bottom cushion that provided no thigh support. The full-sized spare tire was still stored in a side compartment, but the whole side panel had to be removed to get at it and it was cheaply designed compared to the older Chevy. The storage compartment under the cargo floor was much smaller, too. A full-sized suitcase would not fit in it. The Custom Cruiser came with a 403 cubic inch V-8 engine, but it didn’t seem as fast the Chevy. Its automatic transmission did not seem to shift as smoothly. It had much firmer and yet rather supple suspension and rode nicely. The car also also had goodies like AC, cruise control, an AM/FM Stereo radio with a power antenna, a power driver’s seat, and reclining front seat backs.

    That was the last station wagon in the family (Dad traded it for an ’85 Pontiac Parisinne Brougham with fender skirts), but I’ve always preferred them to minivans and SUVs. I think they ride and handle better. I really liked the looks of the original Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable station wagons from the mid eighties up through the early nineties. I thought they were awfully handsome.

    The secret about SUVs that no one wants to admit is that almost all of them are really station wagons, most of them built on truck chassis and having 4-wheel drive, but station wagons, none-the-less.

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    Wagons and mini-vans are probably the replacement for suv’s. Look 50 years ago your department store would deliver a pair of shoes to your home. Now the big box replacement store wants to stuff a 50″ tv in your car for you to take home. With fuel and labor costs home delivery is either expensive or non-existant. So most people are taking their purchases home with them large and small. Even the little hatch back is making a come back, they are practical (actually a mini-station wagon). Lighter, lower, more stylish and certainly less fuel gulping than a truck the station wagon makes sense. Look at volvo, vw, mercedes and tell me the europeans don’t have the right products in wagons for the masses.

  • avatar

    “pistonheads will protest that station wagons don’t accelerate, corner or brake as well as their non-wagon counterparts”…Try my 05 Legacy GT Limited Wagon chipped and tuned with Cobb parts!

    Even loaded up with ski gear for five for a week, it’s impressive!

  • avatar

    I’ve always liked wagons, but I think that’s because, at heart, I appreciate their practicality.

    But lately I’ve noticed that an interesting thing about wagons and sedans, as they evolved over the years, is that wagons got waaayyyy more interesting interiors. They really experimented with a lot of different things. Even today, quite a lot of wagon-esque models have very much more evolved interiors than their sedan counterparts. There’s something about how the shape is simply easier to work with. For example, at the very base, compare the Honda Fit to the Honda Civic. The Fit has a way more usable interior. The Civic is still higher quality, but distinctly lower functionality. Compare the Nissan Sentra to the Versa. Haven’t actually seen the new Sentra, but even though it’s going to be good, the Versa is being hailed as a very refined vehicle, in terms of interior quality and space. Then there’s the really out-there wagons, like the Element, xB, HHR, and the PT Cruiser. Love or hate the looks, or the ride, but pretty much everyone came away impressed with their functionality.

  • avatar

    Wonderful photo of the Nomad with this story. The car I miss the most from my childhood was a ’65 Peugeot 404 wagon. We took delivery in Paris, where we lived for a year (I was 12) and drove that thing all over Europe the following summer, stuffed to the gills with the 3 kids (my sister was only 3 and a half for the trip around Europe, so we fit a little easier) and our stuff.

    It handled wonderfully with very responsive rack and pinion steering, lots of grip, relatively flat cornering, and took bumps with aplomb. The four on the tree was excellent for its day, and, well, I guess it didn’t have much power, but a lot of cars didn’t in those days. (I topped it out at 85 on one of the local highways after flooring it for several minutes.) It was also a very beautiful car, prettier, I thought, than the sedan version, styling by Pininfarina.

    We had two earlier trips across the US in the ’57 Chevy wagon, before my sister was born. Fond memories of being woken up in the motel with the stars still out, my brother and I lying in the back in our sleeping bags, watching the stars and then going back to sleep until breakfast. But the Chevy was a dog to drive, with terrible handling (my father started teaching me when I was six).

  • avatar

    I really liked the looks of the original Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable station wagons from the mid eighties up through the early nineties. I thought they were awfully handsome.

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, but they had more style than so much of what’s out there today.

    The secret about SUVs that no one wants to admit is that almost all of them are really station wagons, most of them built on truck chassis and having 4-wheel drive, but station wagons, none-the-less.

    I agree with this. You look at a GM wagon from the early ’50s, and I’m actually not sure which is higher, that, or the typical modern SUV. The big dif is most of the SUVs don’t have much of a way-back.

  • avatar

    My mom owned this beast which was the car I had to drive when I turned 16 (same sh-t-brown color even). I haaaaated it, thought it was totally embarrasing. But now looking at it… it’s so cute I want one. I have a weird thing for those old boxy 70s-80s japanese cars…

    Thanks, Dolo, for my best laugh of the day.

  • avatar
    Andras Libal

    I recently returned from an Adventure Race in Colorado. The support team was riding a Volvo XC70 and the one thing I did not see mentioned in the posts as far as practicality goes is that not only wagons can carry more stuff inside, they have a bigger roof to pack things on (such as bikes for example).

    I won’t repeat the arguments about handling, rollover accidents, fuel economy and hauling capacity that other posts described so well. I do think that wagons are the logical replacement for most of the SUVs and minivans out there. My favourite is the Audi allroad, because I like some offroad capabilities and also very good handling (the allroad has adjustable height making a sensible compromise), the serious torsen differential and the option to have it in manual in the States. Did I mention good looking ? Too bad Audi does not bring over the diesel engines to the US. Another wish item: the Volvo XC70 with the D5 diesel engine and manual gears. Once we’re thinking practicality we might as well think diesel (some more fuel economy from pure thermodynamical reasons and the added bonus of being able to use biodiesel which is a better choice than ethanol). Hopefully the day will come when it will be cool for an automaker to sell a diesel wagon with manual gears in the States.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Andras: The longer roofline of wagons may not have been in the comments but I did mention it in the penultimate paragraph of the article. ;-)

    I also agree with you on diesels, although as some other posters here have mentioned, there are emissions issues with diesel engines that are not easily resolved. I love the Allroad’s rugged looks (as I do the XC-70’s) but my only real experience with rough-road wagons has been with my Subaru Outback, which is absolutely awesome. I’ve also heard (rumor alert) that Audi and Volvo have had their quality control “issues” as of late, which would make me reluctant to drop 35 large on one of their sexy wagons (if I had 35 large to drop, which I don’t.)

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    We had a 59 Chevy Parkwood wagon when I was growing up – the neighbors had a nearly identical Brookwood with the rear-facing back seat. I never minded crawling into the way-back, though. I have fond memories of that wagon, except for its inability to traverse the hill to Santa Cruz without boiling over.

    I saw plenty of classic wagons at Cherrys Jubilee at Laguna Seca this weekend – Nomads, Safaris, and a nice Buick. I still wish for the utility, handling and style they have always had over SUV’s.

    I even appreciated the similar utility of the PT Cruiser I rented last month. Although smaller than a mid or full-sized wagon, I was able to get three adults, two large suitcases, one medium suitcase, two loaded daypacks, a case of water, a case of soda and two 8-packs of Gatorade inside. The foam ice chest didn’t quite make it. We were all comfortable, the back window wasn’t blocked, and the car performed great over 800 miles.

    I’ve been fantasizing over what a new retro-look version of a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria sedan and Country Squire wagon could look like (T-bird fins could work…), and whether it’d sell with a base turbo-4 cyl and optional V6. I’m kinda ill that way.

    To the 2.5: More, please!

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Joe C: Have you checked out the HHR? I was pleasantly surprised by it. The thick a-pillars are a little disconcerting but otherwise it feels like a very capable small wagon. And I love the ’49 Suburban styling with 30 mpg highway. Chevy seems also to have realized that quirky colors and good tunes are a neccessity in a vehicle that is aimed at young buyers. Personally, if I was 18 and on my way to college I’d prefer the HHR over the Scion Xb.

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    Martin – I have, and I rented one in February. Not a bad vehicle, but I remember wondering at the time: Who would buy this? I only needed point A-B transportation at that time, so different circumstances.

    It’s one I would look at again in the future, though.

  • avatar

    I actually registed on this site (which I love, btw – good job guys) to throw in my $0.02 on the wagon debate. While only available in Canada, if you’re looking for a sporty wagon I recently bought and am thoroughly enjoying a Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback. To my mind it’s actually more attractive than the base Lancer.

    The fact that it’s got exactly the same grunt as the Lancer doesn’t hurt, either. Being able to drop the hammer in a wagon and burn past most cars makes it feel like I’m driving something a lot sportier than outward appearances might suggest.

  • avatar
    jerry weber

    I think wagons get a bad rap for performance and style because for the last 25 years ,minivans have been what passed for wagons. If ford built the fairlane and a host of other companies built more truly automotive platform wagons, much of the bad taste of wagons would dissapear. The problem with the old car wagons were they had low roofs and high floors cutting the useable ceiling height down to say 29″. With front wheel drive and other technology, you don’t need to have a high floor in the wagon. The small wagons already out there prove that (check out toyota matrix). A trunk in a sedan is still a limited use cargo area compared to the open floor of a wagon.

  • avatar
    Ken K.

    Whaaat? All this talk about wagons, old and new, and not ONE mention of the Ford Country Squire? The Wagonmaster itself? Ford was to wagons in the 70’s what DCX was/is to minivans…dominant! 1 in 5 cars sold in the 70’s was a station wagon. I like many of you grew up riding in them. I was never old enough to drive them, however (DOB: 1968). So in the last year I have purchased two of my favorite Country Squires that my parents owned when I was a kid, a 1974 & 1976. Both in incredible condition. They ride like a matress and have a fully boxed frames, unlike the F-series pick ups of that era! No I don’t drive them as daily drivers, but I have to fight off the urge to do so. Checkout sometime for a look back at the classics.

  • avatar
    Joe C.


    See my initial post above.

    By the 70’s, though, the CSq had gotten too big and floaty for my taste, like the Caprices and Town & Country’s it competed with. My driver’s training car was a full-sized ’73 Plymouth wagon, and it scared the hell outta me when I had to take it on the freeway.

    Picture a sedan and wagon about the wheelbase and size of the last-gen Camry. High seating position, durable materials, styling cues from the mid-50’s Fords (trim fins, T-bird styling cues, a la J Mays). Heck, let’s bring back the rear-facing seats with shoulder belts.

    We’ve touched on 30’s styling (PT Cruiser), 40’s (HHR), and 60’s (Mustang). Can somebody explain to me why we’re passing on the 50’s, the most beloved American design years, for a mainstream hit??

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Picture a sedan and wagon about the wheelbase and size of the last-gen Camry. High seating position, durable materials, styling cues from the mid-50’s Fords (trim fins, T-bird styling cues, a la J Mays). Heck, let’s bring back the rear-facing seats with shoulder belts.

    I believe the Volvo XC-70 has a 2-passenger rear-facing seat in the back. Just like the ’76 Torino wagon I learned to drive in!

  • avatar

    The problem with Station-Wagons in the US is that they lack prestige. While the europeans can get away with a Mercedes/Audi/Volvo wagon, it is because a wagon-version is not less prestigious than a sedan-version, it is just aimed to another customer-base. For an executive in his middle 40s to choose between a BMW 5-series sedan or wagon in europe, it is only depending on if he has a family with wife and children or not. Turning up at work in a 5-series wagon doesn’t mean anything else than that the family needs the extra luggage space. And it’s good for hauling those golf-clubs to the country club too…

    While Cadillac has two SUVs, the SRX and Escalade (truck-based, no less), and Lincoln even had a pick-up truck on its line, they have never EVER had a station-wagon on sale. And it is a pity. Chrysler had som full-size station-wagons in the 70s. And that is as prestigious as it gets.

    Think of a Lincoln Mk VI 3-door Station-Wagon, like a modern Nomad. It would have done great for the country-club gentry. Think of a full size Cadillac Brougham or Lincoln Town Car Station-Wagon. Special bodied Cadillacs has always been in demand. Think of a mid 90s Dodge Avenger 3-door SW or Stratus 5-door SW. A competitor to the BMW 3-series? A Ford Taurus SHO Station-Wagon? Volvo raced their 850 SW in the english touring car championship, and it was a huge public relations success. The only racing station-wagon in the world! Only 40kg heavier, but the better aerodynamics (Thanks to the kamm-tail) made it a faster car.

    A Mercedes E-series wagon carry with it the extra prestige added to it like the original 30s and 40s Station Wagons had, becuase of them being so much more expensive to make. Owning a Station-Wagon then made it a premium choice, because it showed off the money behind it, and added the eccentricity of choosing a practical car over a less practical luxury-car at the same price. What the european auto-makers have cut out for themselves in the american auto-market niche is exactly the same space, and it is time for the american makers to catch up and take back what one was theirs.

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    Martin – true, but I just don’t like the looks of recent Volvos. I guess what I’m lamenting is any attempt by a US badge to design and market a visually appealing reasonably-sized mainstream wagon.

    The closest we’ve been offered recently: the Focus wagon, which wasn’t a bad attempt, but is now quite dated; the Malibu Maxx, which just looks like Chevy couldn’t decide between a wagon and a hatch; the PT Cruiser, which is small but useful and stylish (if you like the look); Magnum, which is sold more for its Hemi and bling factor than utility.

    On a recent trip to Canada, I could swear I spotted a Chevy Cobalt wagon. Maybe I was seeing things, but if not, why wouldn’t it at least be offered in the states?

  • avatar
    Joe C.

    Oh, and Matrix/Vibe. But, in my mind they slot in the same smaller group as Mazda3, A3, Rio5, etc. Not as much utility in that size.

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