By on December 10, 2007

1953-buick-station-wagon-woody-green-fa-lr.jpgOne of the rare examples of altruism in pistonheads concerns the (nearly extinct) American station wagon. They passionately defend the one automotive genre that the vast majority of American consumers wouldn’t be caught dead in (excepting a hearse). Why so much love for a car shape that’s been fading from the American scene for the best part of 25 years? The passion comes from recognition. The reality we’ll have to blame on Darwin and his stupid birds.

Wagons increase a car’s cargo space without altering the donor car’s fundament shape. They’re a bit heavier and generally a little shakier than their sedan siblings, but still offer car-like driving dynamics. This is important to enthusiasts, who value driving dynamics sur tout. Ironically, pistonheads hate compromises; generally speaking, they don’t buy wagons. But they recommend them to others– especially SUV owners– based on the combination of handling and hauling.

The other reason American pistonheads root for the station wagon: foreign car magazines and websites are full of them. They have them, we don’t. So they must be really good, right? Well, maybe, but first we need to have a little talk about the birds.

When Charles Darwin was hanging out down in the Galapagos, he had a thing for finches. While there were many different types of finches on the islands, Darwin figured they were all descended from a single type of bird. Responding to their environment (a.k.a. natural selection), one species had expanded into a dozen [car word now] niches. 

Most foreign car markets divide cars into classes based on some combination of size and engine power. These classes are taxed at ever steeper rates as you move “up” the list. And the roads upon which they drive are narrower than our American highways and byways. This creates a demand for getting as much “bang for buck” on the smallest possible platform. Natural selection favors Eurowagonophilia.

On this side of the pond, save the gas guzzler tax and the ongoing financial penalties imposed by low mpg vehicles, the US has no size-related vehicular fees. If an American non-pistonhead wants a bit more space, there’s very little reason not to buy a SUV/CUV/Minivan. The price difference between a “normal” size (two-row) station wagon and a small “box” vehicle is minimal. 

The old rear-drive (three-row, with a penalty box) wagon has no advantage on a minivan/big CUV other than cornering. And who buys a people-hauler for that? This also explains why “small” three-row haulers (MPV/Villager, the old Odyssey, Tribeca) have such low sales; there isn’t enough price “room” for them to compete with the big boys.

It’s not that manufacturers haven't tried– and tried again– to sell station wagons. Fifteen years ago, the first car Honda designed in the USA was the Accord Wagon. For years, it was the most-exported American-built car. Back in Ohio, the most common sales drivers for the Honda wagon were transplanted Japanese employees encouraged to “drive local.” When the Accord design was split into USA and “rest of the world,” the Acura TL was brought to the states and the wagon was kept small and built overseas.

If this seems like the destruction of a tradition, it really isn’t. The “classic” large American wagon was a fairly recent development, dating from the “new” car designs of the late 1940s. Earlier “station wagons” looked a lot like modern SUV/CUVs. The Chevy Suburban was called a “station wagon” at its introduction.

Right from the beginning, these new wagons were criticized for their lack of utility. The classic 1960 book “Insolent Chariots” not only criticized contemporary vehicles for being all flash, it also ripped station wagons for being useless for camping and other duties (he wanted a Jeep, before Jeeps were that big). While VW buses, International Scouts, and “custom” vans cut into the “utility” market for the next 20 years, it was the minivan that killed the large wagon segment. 

The “secret” to the minivan was packaging. By using a “car-like” uni-body and transverse engine, minivans could haul like a wagon on a much smaller platform and offer genuine rear seats to boot. If you still needed to tow, there were always an SUV. As gas stayed cheap through the mid ‘80’s into the ‘90’s, more people moved into the “safer” (and much more commodious) SUVs and the new uni-body CUVs. The wagon had been well and truly “niched.”

Is the wagon due for an American revival? Doubtful. There’s always demand for a more space-efficient car– especially if utility not performance is the major selling point. Subaru and Volvo still sell a lot of wagons, but they are not in the heart of the market. The heart of the market either wants a car to drive or something to haul stuff. They don’t like to pay extra to do neither as well.

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64 Comments on “Requiem for a Station Wagon...”


  • avatar
    GS650G

    The taurus/sable wagons were very popular, before SUVs killed them off too. Escort wagons could carrya surprising amount as well. Station Wagons should be brought back since they can get better mileage than trucks and could use most of the same components as the cars do. Why this does not happen is a mystery to me.

  • avatar
    cyclopticgaze

    I agree that the increased carrying capacity of minivans and the perceived safety and hauling abilities of SUVs are what have killed off the station wagon in America. The wagon’s comeback lies in those people who don’t want a huge family hauler (minivan) and who don’t fall for the safety and power abilities that many SUVs claim (a lot of SUVs can’t actually haul). I think there’s more there than just the performance-oriented (a-la STI) market. Better mileage than minivans might be the wagon’s saving grace in the future.

  • avatar
    CeeDragon

    The heart of the market either wants a car to drive or something to haul stuff.

    Andrew, you’re right, unfortunately. My hope is that the rise in gas prices force people in the US to re-evaluate how much and how often they “haul stuff”.

    Instead of buying the largest vehicle to tow a boat 5x a year, seat 7 people 4x a year, or carry a sheet of plywood 2x a year, I hope that people buy vehicles that best suit them for the 99% of the normal use they’re likely to get.

    I think station wagons are a great way to get nearly all of the non-track related performance in a car and still have a bunch of usable cargo area.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    There are two major advantages that a station wagon has over a minivan or a SUV: less wind resistance; and lower center of gravity.

    I don’t know where all those one-box people drive but for me, a station wagon tends to be clearly superior in a sidewind situation. At 90 mph in wintery winds, better aerodynamics can make the difference between a stressful and a smooth drive.

    Lower wind resistance means lower fuel consumption too, all things being equal.

    Having a lower center of gravity not only makes a car easier to hustle. It also means the ride will be less pitchy and shaky. I know I know, plenty of one-box drivers will say that their vehicles ride just fine. But perhaps there would be less road rage out there if people tried out cars that are more serene.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Good writeup. Let’s not forget the lower fuel economy standards factored in for trucks & SUV’s which allowed them to escape the more stringent CAFE standards and the gas guzzler tax applied to cars. Car seats are also mentioned as a big reason as newer vehicles can accommodate them better.

    I agree that the fate of the station wagon in the US market is grim, basically consigned to a niche market. Cornering was not exactly an advantage for the last of the traditional full-sized station wagons, the GM B-bodies, compared to a minivan.

    As for voting with our wallets – just found out yesterday that my brother and sister-in-law are awaiting delivery of an ’08 Mazda5 to replace their decade-old CR-V; we have an ’07. It’s niche vehicle with pathetic sales in the US market that sells well elsewhere, and can fit up to 4 car seats as opposed to 2 with a similarly sized & priced wagon.

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    After 20 years of minivans, we’re a 2 station wagon household. 2 relatively compact, fuel-efficient vehicles that drive like cars. With a manual tranny, a wagon is a fine way to do 99% of what you need to do. U-haul can do the rest.

  • avatar
    BerettaGTZ

    You forgot about the high seating position of SUV’s and crossovers that many drivers like. These drivers don’t care about having a sports-sedan-like handling. “Handling” in their mind is being able to quickly find and snag the closest parking slot in the suburban strip mall, and a high seating position gives you a huge advantage over a low-slung wagon.

  • avatar
    timoted

    Dodge has proved that you can have style with hauling capabilities with the Magnum. Great styling and performance with an abundant amount of space to haul whatever. I think if more manufacturers were to style wagons more agressively, they’d be more successful in selling them.

  • avatar

    I am reminded of the opening line from the BMW Club magazine Roundel when reviewing the first X5: What has less room than a 3-series wagon and weighs 1000 lbs more? The new X5. The fashion statement made by trucky-looking SUV’s has been far and away the death of the station wagon. As it happened, I owned a 3-series wagon and was very pleased that I could fold the seats down and throw a mountain bike in the back without the need to remove wheels of the bike while enjoying the maneuverability and fuel mileage of a small car. And for those times when I needed to move a few people, it held four passengers as well as any of the small SUV’s.

    It may well be that the Tahoe/Expedition sized vehicles are actually used for towing and transporting heavy loads for which the truck chassis is needed, but when I see them, they’re usually sitting in traffic with a single person aboard. And with the availability of 4×4 minivans, it seems silly to say one needs the people-hauling capability of the big utes.

  • avatar
    ffdr4

    Americans may not be hot for station wagons, but Canadians sure are. More fo them are ditching their SUVs and minivans and getting into them. The variety and selections of wagons and 5 door sedan based hatchs on the Canadian market is staggering with many models sold up here and not in the US.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    With the exception of the GMC Safari, nobody makes awd minivans anymore.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    “The Chevy Suburban was called a “station wagon” at its introduction.”

    I often refer to the Ford Explorer and Mazda Tributes as station wagons much to the chagrin of my children. They correct me, “Dad they are SUV’s not station wagons!” I guess it is a generational difference with perception and status. It’s ok to drive an SUV but station wagons must not be acceptable. Go figure!

  • avatar

    With the exception of the GMC Safari, nobody makes awd minivans anymore.

    The 2008 Toyota Sienna comes with AWD as an option.
    http://autos.yahoo.com/toyota_sienna_le_awd/

    I’ll easily take a Magnum SRT-8 Wagon.

  • avatar
    radimus

    The wagon isn’t completely dead. Just the mid-sized and full-sized wagons. The compact wagon morphed itself into the 5-door hatch.

    With the minivan on the scene, the mid-sized and larger wagons are kind of pointless really. Especially to their main market segment, which is families with children. Frankly, once you’ve buckled kids into car seats in a minivan you’re not going back to doing the same in a car without some kicking and screaming. When you compare fuel economy, the minivan stacks up only slightly worse than the mid-size wagon and on par with what the full-sized got. Combine that with ease of loading, vastly improved crash safety, and gobs more cargo space its no wonder those wagons are gone. And IMO, good riddance to them.

  • avatar
    BiturboS4

    I often get a hard time from my friends for having a wagon version of the s4. They want to know why I got a wagon, so I tell them it’s so I can move stuff. Then they ask why I didn’t just get an SUV and I reply that an SUV doesn’t corner like my Audi does. Then of course they ask why I didn’t get a Cayenne (…) No one seems to complain when I am driving their new bigscreen TV back from the store though. Or when they have a grin on their face while I am carving corners. Wagons simply make more sense than sedans. Practicality is a forgotten concern these days, it seems.

  • avatar
    veefiddy

    Wagons ho! As a one-car family in a city, a small wagon is the best choice for us. Why? Cause it doesn’t make my car-sick-prone wife puke. Lack of pitch-and-yaw at the lights + cargo room + fuel econ + parking ability wins. I realize we’re a niche in this country. So be it.

  • avatar
    Acd

    SUV is just another term that means station wagon. When you get right down to it every Tahoe, Explorer, Durango, 4Runner and the rest of them are actually jacked up station wagons with varying amounts of space and utility but they are all just station wagons. CUV’s are even closer to the original with their more car like handling but they too are fundamentally station wagons– but the manufacturers would freak out if anyone actually called them that.

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Timoted:

    “Dodge has proved that you can have style with hauling capabilities with the Magnum. Great styling and performance with an abundant amount of space to haul whatever.”

    That is definately debatable. I for one would rather have my eyes gouged out with a piece of balsa wood than have a Magnum. Of course, I could also argue that having a Magnum and your eyes gouged out are one in the same.

    How do you make a wagon cool? Call it a five door hatch. I have a wagon mafia sticker on the back of my Mazdaspeed3, and at all the Mazda meets I go to, people are like…its not a wagon, its a five door hatch.

    A wagon as four doors and a hatch. My car has four doors and a hatch. Whats the difference? Marketing. Embrace the wagonhood, my fellow wagon owners! I don’t need a trailer for my track wheels at the end of a track day, I just toss them in the back!

    I saw an FX35 this weekend, and it made me ask myself…is that really an SUV, or a seriously jacked up wagon?

  • avatar
    bfg9k

    Fuel prices will bring back the popularity of the wagon and hatchback. They’re already growing the crossover market at the expense of SUV’s, and at some point people will realize that wagons give them the same hauling capacity as crossovers without the fuel mileage penalty of a larger heavier vehicle.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Funny you should publish this at the same time as your XC-70 review…

    My two favorite cars of all time were our two Volvo 240 wagons. If Volvo could update that (or the 940 wagon), I’d be looking to buy it. The new Volvos simply are not the same.

    Veefiddy, the problem with being a niche, is that you won’t get many choices. Some, maybe, but not many.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    90MPH in winter winds, easy dude.
    Buying something that doesn’t make your wife puke is always a good thing.

  • avatar
    Pete_S4

    I often get a hard time from my friends for having a wagon version of the s4. They want to know why I got a wagon, so I tell them it’s so I can move stuff. Then they ask why I didn’t just get an SUV and I reply that an SUV doesn’t corner like my Audi does.

    I hear you, I traded my S4 sedan years ago for an S4 Avant. Even my sister-in-law who’s not a fan of wagons liked it when I got it. You can’t beat a wagon for hualing stuff to the track, I can get 5 track tires in mine without dropping the back seat. The Avant weighs 150 lbs more, but that’s only 4% more weight for a lot of utility. Plus, since the weight is all out back, it improves the chassis balance…something Audis desperately need.

    Anyway, I find that between the big brakes, tweaked suspension, and 450+ HP, the topic of my car being a wagon rarely comes up. :)

  • avatar
    willbodine

    The author raises some valid points, but the wagon, while on life support in the US, is alive and well elsewhere. The classic post-war American wagon was stylish, in addition to being useable. I can’t think of a single minivan that could even remotely be described as chic. Just look at the 53 Buick “Estate” wagon pic used in the article. It just reeks class. (It was also the last American wagon that used wood structurally, as well as for decoration.) The usurper to the wagon in the US has been the SUV, not the minivan. Many Boomers have fond memories of trips in the family wagon back in the 50s,60s and even 70s. While they may not pick new wagons as daily drivers (being empty nesters and all) a lot of them are collecting the classic ones. I’ll close with this question, which would you rather drive, a Q7 or an A6 Avant? The wagon is far from dead.

  • avatar

    GS650G: The article made “why this doesn’t happen” pretty clear. They have been brought back, again & again. & they don’t sell.

  • avatar
    tsgtsfitz

    Personally I have always loved station wagons. I spent part of my life overseas and I have a differet view of them. That being said I have a 01 4Runner(wifes) that has grown on me.
    I have been looking into getting rid of my 06 Legacy and buying station wagon(Subaru or Volvo) Recently I took my car into the dealer for soome warranty work and while there drove the 08 Outback turbo. I was pretty disapointed to say the least. First this car was only a little faster than the NA engine which was evident merging on to I25 from the onramp. Second, the higher center of gravity equaled a massive amount of body roll(SUV like). My father was sitting in the back seat and this was the first thing he commented on upon exit. The Outback was removed from the list so on to the V70.
    Of course Subaru decieded to ax the Legacy GT station wagon which I believe would have been the one for me(probaly form lack of sales). Unforutunately, I have been able to locate a used one yet.
    In any case, I have come to the conlcuison that jacked up station wagons are SUV’s. It would make more sense for me to by a CUV than one of these things.

  • avatar
    blautens

    What I wouldn’t give to have my family’s 1965 Ford Country Squire wagon back. Or our 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass wagon. Now those were wagons…(my attempts to make the Cutlass into a roadster by cutting the roof off not withstanding)

    But they were thirsty, ponderous handling, body on frame, gas guzzlers, too – not much different that today’s SUVs.

    Reiterating what previous poster(s) said – today’s wagons are just called SUVs.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    GS650G: The taurus/sable wagons were very popular, before SUVs killed them off too.

    Ford’s unsuccessful 1995 restyle of the Taurus/Sable was especially ugly in wagon form and it pretty much killed the bodystyle. The rearmost side windows looked like they came from an aftermarket kit installed in a sedan delivery. The facelift improved the sedan, but did nothing for the ugly rear end of Taurus/Sable wagon.

    It’s been snowing over the weekend in the Denver area, not much really, but the roads were covered and slippery. Listed below is link to a picture taken of Interstate 25 north of Denver. Three out of four of the vehicles that slid into the median appear to be either “safer” 4-wheel drive SUVs or CUVs.
    http://www.denverpost.com/portlet/article/html/imageDisplay.jsp?contentItemRelationshipId=1748080

    Notice how the single conventional car is still upright while all of the SUVs or CUVs are either on their sides or upside down.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    I admit the refusal of Americans to buy sw’s over the last 20 odd years has completely confused me. We owned a ’92 Accord wagon for 15 years (just sold it), 200k miles, bulletproof, handled wondrously, and close to 30mpg on the hwy fully loaded, two kids, top box, etc. We actually drove a few suv’s and minivans before buying it, drove the Honda around the block, bought it. Hauled everything in it, took long trips, commuted, you name it. The Honda 4cyl. may be as good a motor as anyone has ever built, and frankly, could push a 4k lb. car around pretty darn nicely. I second somebody else’s comment, why anyone would by an X3 or an X5 over a 3 series wagon is completely inexplicable. If you have to have awd, they make a 3 series in that too. Please, folks, unless you have more than two kids, and most of you don’t, buy a wagon!

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Radimus has got it right. The compact wagon still makes sense in the US. Interesting how CAFE actually does make the SUV more attractive than the more fuel efficient wagon.

    Someone mentioned car seats, and this is a big reason that taller vehicles do better. Much easier to deal with the little buggers while standing up than bending over. And, you don’t bump your head is much. I know this, and I don’t even have any kids. I think the large wagon will remain a niche. The compact wagon and cute ute/CUV category will do well.

  • avatar

    The working hypothesis of this article is just plain WRONG! The thing that killed the wagon was that “light trucks,” meaning minivans, SUVs and pickups, had a much lower CAFE standard than cars, including wagons. The car companies had basically about zero incentive to build wagons. And wagons began disappearing in earnest after CAFE was implemented. See The High and the Mighty by Keith Bradsher. I bet of “light trucks” had the same mileage standards as cars, you would see quite the resurgence of wagons.

    Then, too, there are plenty of Subaru and Volvo wagons around. And a lot of what are called CUVs or SUVs–I’m thinking especially of the Subaru Forester–are really wagons. They are just high enough that one can wear a hat in them, the way one could in wagons of the ’50s and ’60s.

    And, again contrary to the working hypothesis of the article, there were minivans and SUVs in the ’60s. People just didn’t buy that many, because there were plenty of neat station wagons. There was the VW Microbus (what else coiuld it be but a minivan) the Chevy Greenbriar, and the Ford Econoline Van. There was also the International Travelall, and a Chevy truck that was essentially a minivan or SUV (the headmaster of my Quaker elementary school, who had six kids, drove around in one of those when he wasn’t riding his Raleigh 3 speed), and the Jeep Wagoneer.

    Finally, the author refers to “much more commodious SUVs.” In fact, in my experience, they are mostly quite small inside. Between a minivan and an SUV, if you want space, you’d best choose the minivan. Those, it seems, do have a space advantage relative to wagons.

  • avatar

    Love the photo that went with this article!

  • avatar
    NICKNICK

    the car that makes the least sense is the sedan.
    if you *need* four doors, then you’re hauling enough people and stuff often enough that you need a wagon.

    if you aren’t hauling people and stuff, you only need a coupe.

    ah well.

  • avatar
    timoted

    Virtual Insanity :

    I for one would rather have my eyes gouged out with a piece of balsa wood than have a Magnum.

    I for one would rather have my eyes removed with a mellon baller than drive a Mazadaspeed3 (which is nothing more than pregnant VW Golf.) Put a Magnum SRT-8 next to a mazdaspeed and I think most would pick the Magnum if they were forced to choose. A wagon is as cool as you make it. Chevy Nomads weren’t cool from the factory but they are cool now. I spend a good deal of time on the road and I see a lot of customized Magnums out there. I have yet to see a customized mazdaspeed.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    But they were thirsty, ponderous handling, body on frame, gas guzzlers, too – not much different that today’s SUVs.

    Reiterating what previous poster(s) said – today’s wagons are just called SUVs.

    Except that SUVs usually (but not always) have 4wd and often, low-range transfer cases, bigger tires, and better ground clearance than the wagons of old, which means they can take you places the Family Truckster can’t. I realize not everybody uses those capabilities in their SUVs but the notion that nobody uses them is completely flawed. Come up to Colorado any Summer weekend and you’ll see plenty of 4wd SUVs on roads where ordinary cars fear to tread.

  • avatar
    cjdumm

    Love the article and the comments.

    My wife had a ’95 SW2 Saturn Wagon, and it was ideal for our driving needs for several years. It hauled lots of stuff, got excellent mileage (over 40 on the interstate) and stuck to the road like glue with its wide 17″ performance tires. I even thought it looked cool for its day.

    The only handling glitches were a bizarre steering wheel and a 5-speed tranny/clutch that had all the ‘snick-snack’ tactile precision of a wooden spoon in a bowl of pancake batter.

    Why did we ditch it for a CUV? Two words: baby seats. Shoehorning an infant into a rear-facing baby seat was awkward and hazardous for the baby, and lumbar agony for the parent. Now that the kids are old enough to seat and buckle themselves, a station wagon makes sense for us again.

    Too bad the Subarus get such disappointing mileage. When the CUV tops 120,000 miles, we’ll probably replace it with a Fit or other mini-people carrier.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Martin Albright: Come up to Colorado any Summer weekend and you’ll see plenty of 4wd SUVs on roads where ordinary cars fear to tread.

    I notice how you said “summer.”

    http://www.denverpost.com/portlet/article/html/imageDisplay.jsp?contentItemRelationshipId=1748080

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Martin Albright: “Come up to Colorado any Summer weekend and you’ll see plenty of 4WD SUVs on roads where ordinary cars fear to tread…”

    It seems to me that the more remote and less inviting a road is, the more likely I am to see a VW van of some vintage (even a EuroVan) steadily poking its way along it.

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Timoted:

    And thats what makes the US a great nation, we have the freedom to drive whatever we want. Its just that 90% of the Magnum’s I see are driven by wannabe ballers who had their car bought for them by daddy with those stupid-ass 5000″ rims made of platinum and gold leaf with an 8 zillion watt stereo system playing “music”, and that is being generous to rap. That, or soccer dads who actually believed the commercials that their Magnum could hold with a Lotus, and end up putting them into a tree or light post.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    David Holzman:

    Let’s not forget that Subaru managed to get the Outback Wagon classified as a truck.

  • avatar
    timoted

    I’m sorry Virtual Insanity, it must be hard living with all that bitterness. Maybe you’d be less bitter if you woulda sprung for the mazdaspeed6 with the 270 hp engine and upgraded stereo.

  • avatar
    Virtual Insanity

    Not really bitterness, more cynicism than anything. And I had my choice between the Speed3 and Speed6. I chose the Speed3, which you had to actually spring for. Most dealerships, in my area especially, are giving away Speed6s. They can’t keep the Speed3s on the lot.

    Hmmm, be a 23 year old ricer in a hopped hop econo box, or a 23 year old driving a mid life crisis mobile for the masses. Meh.

  • avatar
    timoted

    “Hopped up econo box” is a contradiction in terms. You can put an annoying grapefruit shooter exhaust and an obnoxious tail on any econo box and it’s still an econo box. You did call the mazda right, it is an econo box not a stationwagon. I don’t think anyone’s ever called a Magnum or a Chevelle stationwagon or any other “traaditional” stationwagon an econo box regardless of their age. We all drive what we can reasonably afford.

  • avatar
    dklinux

    I own a 98 Ford Escort Wagon. It is going to need to be replaced soon. Ford no longer makes Station Wagons. My top replacement choice is the new 2009/10 VW Jetta Sportswagon with a Diesel engine. I WON’T GO BACK TO A TRUNK!

  • avatar
    KixStart

    The rise of the term “econobox,” with its derisive overtones, parallels the rise of the Japanese and the decline of Detroit.

    A “hopped up econobox” is just the most recent incarnation of the musclecar. A Nova with a 472 Cadillac engine was still a Nova. Well, a Nova with a weight distribution problem, I suppose.

  • avatar

    Let’s not forget that Subaru managed to get the Outback Wagon classified as a truck.

    starlightmica,
    I certainly wasn’t forgetting that. It’s still a wagon as far as I’m concerned. But that classification, and what they did to get it, is more evidence of how much different CAFE standards for cars and light trucks warps the market. Thanks for bringing that up.

    Johnster,
    great photo of the fate of SUVs in winter!

  • avatar
    Unbalanced

    We were pioneers of sorts in the station wagon to SUV exodus, having traded in our Mercury Sable wagon for a Nissan Pathfinder some fifteen years ago. The reason was simple: style trumps substance.

    With two young sons, the Sable’s way back seat was regularly in use for the then frequent two moms and four kids outings. The Pathfinder’s seating for five meant no such luck. The Sable had tons of storage capacity, a smooth quiet ride, and got better than decent gas mileage. The Pathfinder not so much, not so much and not so much.

    But the Sable apparently screamed “Mommy-car” (although I couldn’t hear it), and the Pathfinder had that just about to mountain bike to some white water rafting look, and that was that.

    Some 100,000 fashionable if uncomfortable miles later, we journeyed back, and traded the Pathfinder for a BMW 525it wagon. Still no third row (with our sons by then teenagers those two moms and four kids ventures were no longer an issue), but you could pull of a major Costco run or throw in a bike without too much trouble. It’s by far the best car we’ve ever owned. With 90K miles on the clock, the BMW has done years of double duty as a modestly capable hauler and as a …well, BMW.

    Having said all of that, it’s still not surprising to me that the “sport” wagon niche is a narrow one. Although our wagon has been more practical than a sedan, it’s still way less useful than any of a number of CUV’s available today. Most have the critic-derided but extra kid friendly third rows, get semi tolerable mileage, and can stow massive amounts of gear. We’ve sheared a couple of front spoilers off the BMW on dirt roads and in the snow, had to deal with chains in the absence of 4WD, and generally had to apply advanced geometric thinking to packing for long trips. And gas mileage probably hasn’t been any better than in something like an MDX or Acacia.

    But I just drove back from the mountains yesterday in the BMW, and the experience highlighted why the trade-offs have been more than worth it. We may not have had as much stuff with us when we got there, but the driver at least had a hell of a good time along the way.

  • avatar
    spj911

    The wife and I have two kids and two wagons. Nothing else really meets our needs. Minivans are just too boring. Minivans are where station wagons were in the 70’s & 80s. NO ONE wanted to drive a station wagon then because that’s what parents with more that 2 kids drove. Too blah and boring…. like your parents. Now minivans are suffering the same fate. So don’t just write about it, go take a spin in one or two of the (formerly) Swedish wagons or one of the multiple offering from the Germans. So what if they can’t make a US wagon… Just like bellbottoms and wide ties, they making their return anyway in the US. They are not the lumbering precursors to minivans that your parent’s parents use to drive on family vacations. Where else can you get 30+mph HWY, 6 sec dashes 0-60 (no M-5 Wagon in the states yet…) and still haul a huge load back from the Home Depot (well, not all at the same time). Not to mention swell handling (yeah, that word is coming back too!)

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Johnster: Yes, it’s been posted a few times. Of course, it proves nothing. If 3/4 of the vehicles on the road at any given time during a snowstorm (the Saturday night storm was indeed a nasty one) then a random distribution would mean that 3/4 of the wrecks should also be SUVs, right? The cluster of wrecks at that site indicates particularly treacherous ice conditions that would have been dangerous for any vehicle, 4wd or not. And of course, 4wd is not of much assistance to those who don’t know how to use it.

    What that picture doesn’t show are the people who looked outside at the weather and stayed home because they knew their FWD cars with all-season tires wouldn’t make it. I had a party to go to across town and had no trouble getting around in my 4wd pickup. The Subaru would also have been fine but if I’d had a FWD car I think I would have phoned my regrets.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Vista Cruisers, Country Squires, Ranch Wagons, even an Estate Wagon – how well I remember gowing up in the ’60s.

    I graduated from riding in the “way back” to the rear seat, to the navigator’s seat, and finally to the pilot seat. I’ve logged many a mile in the traditional family wagon.

    The author is absoutely correct – the vastly superior packaging efficiency of a minivan is what killed the full sized wagon. Assuming one doesn’t want to block the view through the rear window, a full size wagon really doens’t have any more room than a sedan it just has a roof over the trunk, instead of a lid – so everyone can see what you’ve got in there.

    I do like a compact wagon though. A minivan isn’t an alternative to a compact wagon because a compact buyer, presumably, doesn’t want a large vehicle.

    We had an ’87 Civic wagon. I really wish Honda still made a civic wagon. Ours didn’t have AWD, but it was available. The best of all possible worlds – small, yet roomy, and available AWD, and good fuel economy.

    My wife’s CR-V certainly is a station wagon. Granted it sits higher than any of Mom’s old Vista Cruisers, and it’s got AWD, but still it’s a wagon.

  • avatar

    Dynamic88,

    The author is absolutely incorrect. What killed the wagon was that “light trucks,” including minivans and SUVs had a much lower CAFE standard than cars. The car mfgs lobbied for that loophole, and it gave them all the incentive in the world to push minivans and SUVs at the expense of wagons. There were minivans and SUVs in the ’60s, the Microbus, the International Travelall, the KJeep Wagoneer, the Chevy Greenbriar and the Ford Econoline Van (advertised by the Peanuts characters, among others). (For the real story, see The High and the Mighty, by Keith Bradsher.)

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    Easy, David Holzman, easy.
    While I believe you are completely correct as to the DEVELOPMENT of the trend, Mr. Dederer deserves more credit. Growing up, I always liked light trucks and station wagons. I loved those Jeeps, Travelalls, and Microbuses you cite (you forgot the Checker Marathon wagon – alright, I didn’t love those). In 1985, when my wife and I were expecting a child, and our 1981 Subaru wagon was spectacularly unreliable, we were very excited by the Dodge Caravan for all the reasons cited in the article – space efficiency, handling (?), and the chance to be different to Mom and Dad. There were lots of conventional wagons on the market – all cushy, spongy, wallowing, automatic transmissioned, cars-my-parents-drove,
    With the advent of Chrysler’s minivan, we felt that, at last, someone had improved the VW bus. The VW had been a favorite all along, but I never fancied using my knees as the front bumper, or cruising the highway in a full-lock turn. Believe it or not, relative to the V-dub, the Dodge felt fast, – well, adequate.
    Alas, as time went on, you pretty much have the story, but our initial experience was just as Andrew said.

  • avatar

    baabthesaab,

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that minivans don’t have a place in the world. As a child, I found the Microbus–then the quintessential minivan–to be a very compelling concept, and I still do. I can imagine owning one if I had a wife and kids, and unlike many people, I’m not at all put off by its image as a family hauler–although I’d prefer one that handled like a car. But if it hadn’t been for CAFE loopholes, there would have been a lot more wagons, and more compelling wagons, fewer minivans, and probably even fewer SUVs.

    Love the way you describe your problems with driving the Microbus. And I can tell you that later on–my mother had a ’97 Caravan–they were quite zippy with the 6.

  • avatar
    coupdetat

    Anyone else here in the northeast? Seems like station wagons are still alive and kicking here. Subaru and Volvo do particularly well, and hatchbacks are everywhere. Even among my generation (I’m a college student), a lot of my friends like station wagons.

    By the way, I’d also recommend reading High the Mighty. It’s a really terrific book on the history of the SUV, I had trouble putting it down.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Martin Albright: Johnster: Yes, it’s been posted a few times. Of course, it proves nothing. If 3/4 of the vehicles on the road at any given time during a snowstorm (the Saturday night storm was indeed a nasty one) then a random distribution would mean that 3/4 of the wrecks should also be SUVs, right?

    It seems to be more than random distribution that only the SUVs are either on their sides or upside down and that the only car is still rightside up.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    What killed the wagon was that “light trucks,” including minivans and SUVs had a much lower CAFE standard than cars. The car mfgs lobbied for that loophole, and it gave them all the incentive in the world to push minivans and SUVs at the expense of wagons.

    That may be true in respect to the motivation of the automakers to bring them to market. But ultimately, it is the consumer who decides whether or not to buy the product, a decision that has nothing to do with CAFE.

    I’ll offer a bit of an off-the-cuff theory. During the early 80’s, we began to see the growing population of cheap compact pickup trucks such as those from Toyota and Nissan. These trucks were cheaper than cars because their safety and emissions requirements were lower and therefore cheaper with which to comply. Their low price made them popular with young people who wanted basic transportation, and they carried a bit more cool factor than did the subcompact cars that were their most direct price competitors.

    As a result, you ended up with a large population of younger people driving trucks who in past years would have been driving cars. As these younger drivers became accustomed to trucks for both their virtues (ride height, carrying capacity, durability) and their drawbacks (sloppy handling, poor fuel economy, boxy styling), they evolved into becoming logical buyers of SUV’s and minivans as they aged and became more affluent.

    For this group, transitioning into SUV’s was an easy step. Along the way, trucks lost their stigma as being redneck transporation, so that class barrier was breached. While the automakers had motivations to run with this ball, they would alone not have had the power to persuade buyers to buy them just because it served the automakers to do so.

    If gas hits $4+ per gallon, I think you’ll see more wagons. If fuel is expensive, it will motivate changes in behavior, and I doubt that it will be getting much cheaper any time soon.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    I am not dead yet, as they would say in monty python`s search for the Holy Grail. station wagon is not dead. it is that american brand station wagon is dead. why? because detroit metalists avoid anything that deals with tangible engineering and physical input. that`s why you have subarus and hondas station wagons, bot no tauruses or malibuses. big 3 deal good with papers and promises and global bins, when it deals with building real body types, gearboxes, etc, that`s where the problem starts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    “Dynamic88,

    The author is absolutely incorrect. What killed the wagon was that “light trucks,” including minivans and SUVs had a much lower CAFE standard than cars. The car mfgs lobbied for that loophole, and it gave them all the incentive in the world to push minivans and SUVs at the expense of wagons. There were minivans and SUVs in the ’60s, the Microbus, the International Travelall, the KJeep Wagoneer, the Chevy Greenbriar and the Ford Econoline Van (advertised by the Peanuts characters, among others). (For the real story, see The High and the Mighty, by Keith Bradsher.)”

    Respectfully, I have to disagree. Though I’m against CAFE standards, I don’t care to let my opposition cloud my view.

    It’s true there were minivans and SUVs in the 1960s, but they really don’t compare with what came in the ’80s. The Microbus, Econoline, and Greenbrier of the early ’60s were truck-like, and forced the driver and front passenger to double as bumpers. 1960s mothers (and let’s remember that wagons are primarily about mothers) didn’t feel like climbing up into a trucky vehicle where they sat over the front wheels. These were poor substitutes for the traditional wagon.

    The minivans that appeared in the 80s had the front wheels where people like them to be – out in front of the driver. These vans also had enough of a hood to make people feel safe. No longer than the traditional wagon -shorter in some cases- they had more room than traditional wagons. Essentially the minivan was a tall station wagon, with transversely mounted engines and front wheel drive.

    The choice for a family hauler came down to the packaging efficiency of the minivan vs. the packaging inefficiency of the traditional station wagon. Not suprisingly the minivan won.

  • avatar
    gfen

    My wife and I found out she was pregnant with twins. Her New Beetle wasn’t going to cut it anymore, and we went car shopping.

    I wanted a wagon, I really did. However, I faced two major hurdles:
    One, she didn’t like the way wagons looked (with the exception of the Passat wagon), she “wasn’t ready” for a wagon. Fair enough.
    Two, the supposed benefits of wagons weren’t nearly as great as I’d have thought. The two wagons we could concentrate on, the Passat and the Outback, didn’t really produce mileage that was much better than most CUVs (Patriot, RAV4, CRV, or Element).
    In the end, she wanted a trucklet, and that’s what we got.

  • avatar
    eh_political

    David Holzman, coupdetat,

    The Bradsher book is phenomenal. Anyone wondering about the existence of SUVs needs to read about the profits generated by the Expedition alone in one plant. It also goes a loong way towards explaining the Big Three shift into trucks. Sadly it also underlines the types of short cuts many businesses will take to make money in the absence of government standards. It was never about tires, it was about tires AND roof crush standards AND crash compatibility AND handling flaws AND high centre of gravity AND antique designs and components.

    The most troubling question Bradsher poses is: what happens when the vehicles are dumped by the housewives that pilot them, and find their ways second and thirdhand to twenty year old males? He argues that drivers with a more aggressive profile will be taking possession of these vehicles just as they are deteriorating.

    With respect to wagons, I think it is interesting to note that the Europeans generally spin off an estate variant of mainstream models, and I think sedan design benefits. Shapes tend to be taughter, more coherent and wear longer than a majority of Asian and North American designs.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    “Virtual Insanity :
    December 10th, 2007 at 11:22 am

    How do you make a wagon cool? Call it a five door hatch. I have a wagon mafia sticker on the back of my Mazdaspeed3, and at all the Mazda meets I go to, people are like…its not a wagon, its a five door hatch.

    A wagon as four doors and a hatch. My car has four doors and a hatch. Whats the difference? Marketing. Embrace the wagonhood, my fellow wagon owners! I don’t need a trailer for my track wheels at the end of a track day, I just toss them in the back!”

    IMHO, a hatchback is a wagon with a significantly smaller rear area. For example, I own a Scion xA. Without the rear seats folded down, the hatch area is rather small. I wouldn’t call it a wagon, but if it had a foot or three more space in the rear, it would be. (I personally don’t need the space and like having a small car for ease of parking and general “dodgability”.)

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Personally for a great utiltiy vehicle I love econobox wagons. I’ve owned two: an ’85 Nissan Sentra wagon and a 1987 Ford Escort wagon.
    What’s not to like? Great gas mileage, the ability to haul 4 people sorta comfortably or 5 people really uncomfortably, and plenty of cargo space if you fold down the rear seat. The roof rack mounted on either one of these fit a car topper easily for even more cargo room.

  • avatar
    skor

    My favorite wagon of all time was the Ford Ranchero. A wagon with the roof cut off behind the front seat and a pick-up bed installed where the back seats would go.

  • avatar
    RoweAS

    I am new to this site and I love it. Just had to comment re: the station wagons. I love ’em and that was the driving force behind me buying an ’06 xB. Small wagon to be sure, but it is a wagon and I love it like no other car I have ever owned.

  • avatar
    gibbleth

    Hey, I drive a station wagon. Seriously. My 2002 Suburban is pretty much exactly the same profile as the Ford station wagon of my youth. Maybe a little taller, but mostly just scaled up. I really think the two-box just got bigger and heavier.

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