New or Used: Perception Vs. Reality, Wagon Lament

Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
by Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

Chris writes:

For years, my wife and I have enjoyed the carefree enjoyment of running around without a care in the world. Then we had a baby, who is soon going to go from an only child to a big sister. The wife has owned the same car that she bought new when she graduated college: 2000 Honda Insight. Regardless of which side of the hybrid fence you are on, as a car guy, this car continues to amaze me with almost 230,000 miles and no major problems. I have on the other hand gone through a few more cars: Saab 9000, Saab SPG, Ford Bronco, VW Jetta, Nissan X-Terra. My current ride is the X-Terra chiefly bought so I could arrive on muddy construction sites and be taken a little more seriously than my European sports car driving bosses.

While not the ideal vehicle for long distance driving, the X-Terra does a perfectly fine job of carting all of us around in relative comfort as well as through the Northeast’s recent winter from Hell. We think this will also do fine when junior arrives this summer, so that car is staying. The Insight will also stay as we think it is too cool to get rid of and in a pinch will work to transport one of us and a child (we had an airbag cut-off switch installed for the passenger seat to make it baby seat safe), or both of us on the rare night out. But we know we will need two cars which will seat four people and their stuff. We tend to make fairly regular 3 – 5 hour road trips to visit family, so something a little less truck like would be nice for the highway and we have capped our car spending budget at about $20k.

Before being baby bound, the requirements for my next car were that it had to have a manual transmission and a sunroof, pretty simple. But now that we are leaning towards a station wagon (don’t want another SUV), it seems the choices are quite limited, particularly new cars, and has us looking in the used market. VWs are out of the question, new or used, as my experience with the Jetta was one I don’t care to remember. I think I am one of the few that like the look of Saab 9-5 wagons, but I know their reliability under GM is crap, so that is also off the list. The BMW 3-series wagons are a little two small and the 5-series are a little too ugly. An S4 Avant would be great, but other than also being a little small, they don’t come around too often and that choice might be getting a little too close to VW for my comfort. A Subaru wagon would be fine also, but I hate the Outback models and honestly can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Subaru in the town we live.

All that being said, we seem to be leaning in the direction of one of two cars: a Volvo V70R or a Mercedes E320, which are almost polar opposites. Volvos under Ford ownership scare me a little, but it seems Volvo owners are pretty hard-core and love their cars. It meets both requirements and everyone might be happy, especially the driver. While in the Mercedes, I would be sacrificing my manual transmission, which I can learn to be OK with, but I would be gaining a car with rock solid history on the reliability side as well as once of the safest cars on the road (which you can see is important by the two top choices). As different as both cars are from each other, they do have good similarities like lots of room and all wheel drive.

Steve answers:

Most of what you said is based on perception instead of reality.

“Volvos under Ford ownership scare me a little…”

As a long-time Volvo enthusiast, I can tell you that this is a myth par excellence. Volvo BEFORE Ford had horrific reliability issues with the Volvo S80 and Volvo 960/V90. These vehicles were maintenance nightmares that would almost make a late-90’s Jetta blush.

Then you had the Electronic Throttle Module issue debacle which Ford inherited and paid for over the years. Along with the lackluster S40/V50 and transmission hungry V70/XC70 and XC60/XC90.

Ford pretty much cleaned up some of the mess they inherited, mis-marketed the brand as a Lexus/BMW wanna be, and sold the rest.

“I think I am one of the few that like the look of Saab 9-5 wagons, but I know their reliability under GM is crap, so that is also off the list.”

One of my favorite buys for the money if you want a stick for the family. Given that your throwaway budget is $20k (more on that later), I would buy a late model 9-5 and just have it covered under a CPO warranty if you’re that concerned.

The Mercedes E320 I wouldn’t touch with a 47 foot pole. There is zero sport within that model, abysmal reliability, and the cost of maintaining the beast goes far beyond your other two cars. For all that money and hassle you may as well keep the Xterra and enjoy the savings.

Which just happens to be exactly what I recommend. You already have a vehicle that can handle the travels along with the gas sipper (great choice by the way!). I would just upgrade the Xterra instead of dumping a trailer load of cash in a crappy used car market. Leather seats. Better stereo. A bit more noise insulation. For about a thousand or fifteen hundred you can both be perfectly happy for many years to come.

Sajeev Answers:

While I understand everyone’s love for wagons, agreeing with everyone and giving the standard answer must be getting trite for some folks: every wagon on the market is generally ham-stringed by their manufacturer’s quirks, mostly the European ones that everyone loves. No way in hell would I consider a Mercedes wagon in your price range: complicated diagnostics, questionable electro-hydro brakes, and other electro-mechanical “quirks” that will drive you mad. And while a great wagon for wagon-ly duties, some Subies aren’t a good long term value: depends on the year, motor and service records. Especially that last part.

My next standard response: look at the Acura TSX sport wagon if you are looking for new, or a last-gen Mazda 6 wagon on the used side. So yes, the “6” should be on your short list.

So yeah, that’s the current crop of wagons out there in the market. It could be worse, but while I know you want a wagon, I question your resolve. If I’m wrong, get the Volvo or Mazda 6 of your dreams. If not, drive the plethora of family sedans from Japan and the US that offer more content, more value and far less stress in the long term. Or CUVs, that offer cool stuff like panoramic roofs, electronic gadgets to keep kids quiet (DVD player FTW) and still have some amount of wagon utility.

Just more food for thought, especially since you’ll have kids, car seats and the resulting bad back or two in your household after it all.

Need help with a car buying conundrum? Email your particulars to , and let TTAC’s collective wisdom make the decision easier… or possibly much, much harder.
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang
Sajeev Mehta and Steve Lang

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  • Hriehl1 Hriehl1 on Sep 09, 2011

    Post again when the kids are old enough where you'll need to travel with portable cribs, playpens, bikes/trikes, skis, etc. And their friends. I give your Camry sedan 2 years... tops. I am not saying a well-priced Camry was a bad temporary option, I am just skeptical it or any midsize sedan will serve a 2-child American family's needs as the children get into and through their school years. Just having 3 rows of seats that allowed us to separate the little runts on long trips was worth any hit to my image that a minivan imposed.

    • See 2 previous
    • Slance66 Slance66 on Sep 09, 2011

      @Furhead I only have one kid, but still many people comment that my 328 is "too small" for a family car. It's BS. Hell, I was stuck in the back of a 1981 Honda Accord, with my sister, as a teenager. Much smaller than a modern Civic. That said, modern car seats do pose a problem with anything more than two kids and two adults. But if that's your formula, I think any midsize sedan will do the job just fine. Crossovers, wagons and SUVs really only offer minimal storage improvement over a Camry sized trunk, given that you probably don't want to obstruct your rear view. Sure, there's loads of room when you fold the seats, but how does that help when you have the kids in back? With the sedan you'll gain driving dynamics and economy. Now if I can just convince my wife.

  • Hriehl1 Hriehl1 on Sep 09, 2011

    "...teach them from birth to NOT fight in the car". You're kidding... right? Are you SURE you've had kids?

    • Mnm4ever Mnm4ever on Sep 09, 2011

      well, admittedly, not kids that don't fight in the car. :)

  • Jonathan IMO the hatchback sedans like the Audi A5 Sportback, the Kia Stinger, and the already gone Buick Sportback are the answer to SUVs. The A5 and the AWD version of the Stinger being the better overall option IMO. I drive the A5, and love the depth and size of the trunk space as well as the low lift over. I've yet to find anything I need to carry that I can't, although I admit I don't carry things like drywall, building materials, etc. However, add in the fun to drive handling characteristics, there's almost no SUV that compares.
  • C-b65792653 I'm starting to wonder about Elon....again!!I see a parallel with Henry Ford who was the wealthiest industrialist at one time. Henry went off on a tangent with the peace ship for WWI, Ford TriMotor, invasive social engineering, etc. Once the economy went bad, the focus fell back to cars. Elon became one of the wealthiest industrialist in the 21st century. Then he went off with the space venture, boring holes in the ground venture, "X" (formerly Twitter), etc, etc, etc. Once Tesla hit a plateau and he realized his EVs were a commodity, he too is focused on his primary money making machine. Yet, I feel Elon is over reacting. Down sizing is the nature of the beast in the auto industry; you can't get around that. But hacking the Super Charger division is like cutting off your own leg. IIRC, GM and Ford were scheduled to sign on to the exclusive Tesla charging format. That would have doubled or tripled his charging opportunity. I wonder what those at the Renaissance Center and the Glass House are thinking now. As alluded to, there's blood in the water and other charging companies will fill the void. I believe other nations have standardized EV charging (EU & China). Elon had the chance to have his charging system as the default in North America. Now, he's dropped the ball. He's lost considerable influence on what the standardized format will eventually be. Tremendous opportunity lost. 🚗🚗🚗
  • Tassos I never used winter tires, and the last two decades I am driving almost only rear wheel drive cars, half of them in MI. I always bought all season tires for them, but the diff between touring and non touring flavors never came up. Does it make even the smallest bit of difference? (I will not read the lengthy article because I believe it does not).
  • Lou_BC ???
  • Lou_BC Mustang sedan? 4 doors? A quarterhorse?Ford nomenclature will become:F Series - Pickups Raptor - performance division Bronco - 4x4 SUV/CUVExplorer - police fleetsMustang- cars