By on January 7, 2019

2017 Volvo V90 T6 Inscription - Image: Volvo

In the absolutely superb 1949 war film Twelve O’Clock High, a doctor stationed at a U.S. Army Air Force base in WW2 England uses an interesting comparison when describing a character’s mental breakdown.

“Have you ever seen a light bulb burn out? How bright the filament gets right before it breaks?”

A similar phenomenon could be at work in a certain vehicle niche, one which gets more press than actual sales warrant. The lowly, reviled, and suddenly revered station wagon, now referred to in terms meant to dispel the stodgy family hauler image of decades past.

Never mind that BMW just announced its 3 Series wagon won’t make a return trip from Europe. There’s wagons aplenty these days, and it’s this writer’s firm belief that you’ll never have a better change to bring home a competent non-light truck cargo hauler. It’s now or never.

While wagon variants allow automakers to rack up additional sales of a given nameplate, the wagon community remains a small one. Loyal and passionate, but small. And what room there is for growth depends on your level of optimism. As Bloomberg notes, 2018 was a great year for wagon sales, simply because consumers suddenly found themselves with choice.

Buick has the new Regal TourX, Jaguar has the new XF Sportbrake, Volvo has the tony V90 and V60, Mercedes-Benz has the dignified E 450 4Matic wagon and disgruntled AMG E63 S wagon, Audi has the A4 Allroad, and Volkswagen will still gladly sell you a modest Golf SportWagen. All of this choice resulted in a bigger niche than years past. Some 212,000 wagons left U.S. dealer lots in 2018, representing a 29 percent sales increase compared to five years earlier.

Still, wagons amounted to less than 2 percent of the new vehicle market last year. That’s plug-in car territory.

This group of buyers, described by Buick marketing director Sam Russell as “almost violently opposed to being mainstream,” doesn’t want to be seen driving an anonymous crossover. And let’s face it, it’s easier to sculpt a sexy wagon than a high-riding, bulbous crossover. Thing is, though, wagons sales are a slim wedge of the overall volume of a particular nameplate. As sedan sales falter, wagons, despite their snob appeal, won’t pick up enough of the slack. All a wagon can do is delay a model’s discontinuation, if we’re to assume today’s market shift continues uninterrupted.

If sedans disappear from our streets, so too will wagons, despite wagons being a happy middle ground between sedans and crossovers. A sad situation, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. While Bloomberg reports Buick’s TourX sales “increased steadily” over the past 12 months, Volvo’s gorgeous V90 is now available by custom order only, and Jaguar’s XF Sportbrake, while sultry, has to contend with the fact that no one’s interested in buying Jaguar cars these days. Even the brand’s crossovers can’t keep sales in the black.

Despite the recent uptick in wagon interest and availability, it’s hard not to see this phenomenon as a tired light bulb valiantly burning its way towards destruction.

[Image: Volvo Cars]

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63 Comments on “Rebirth, or Looming Fizzle? The Station Wagon Had a Pretty Good Year in 2018...”


  • avatar
    jatz

    That’s actually a gorgeous vehicle, like a Tiffany lamp can be gorgeous; neither fulfills its basic given function as well as countless other options do.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I wonder how the market would react if a manufacturer known for reliable reasonably priced cars, Honda or Toyota for example, introduced a wagon variant.

    • 0 avatar
      jack4x

      In fact, both did, with the expected result.

      The Venza and Crosstour were both discontinued due to slow sales. No, they weren’t ‘wagons’ in the most pedantic definition of the term, but for all intents and purposes, they were the wagon version of the Camry and Accord. And they bombed, just like every wagon (not made by Subaru) has for the last 30 years or more. Enthusiasts never want to believe it, but ride height and AWD are 10x more important to most consumers than lower center of gravity and marginally better handling. Thus CUVs dominate wagons and always will, until something fundamentally changes in human behavior.

    • 0 avatar
      Peter Gazis

      You mean like the Corolla iM

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        That’s really a hatchback more than a wagon.

      • 0 avatar
        agent86

        I bought an iM 6MT and enjoy it very much. There are dozens of us!

        It’s cheap, it’s geared high enough for the highway, and the procedures to change oil and headlight bulbs would not surprise or confuse a home mechanic from a generation ago.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          Literally, dozens!

          My only gripe is the lack of CD player.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            I’ve been looking for something for my NEW COLLEGE GRAD!!! kid to buy after the Jetta gets chucked in, and a iM would be right down her alley. Cheap, (kind of) stylish, hatchback. Plus she has no idea it’s a Corolla.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            There were like forty seven sold this year.

            Seriously though they almost doesn’t exist Freed. I literally bought the last new one in Pittsburgh, searching used two turned up in 100+ miles. At the auction, there are about ten MY18s in the whole country trading at any given time. If you can spot one, the Scion MY16s trade in the $12s, the Toyo branded MY17s a tish more, and my MY18 is worth about $15,5 (alas, I did not pay $15,5).

            “Plus she has no idea it’s a Corolla”

            Its really not a Corolla, its an JDM Auris rebadged for Scion then later Toyota. For your price of entry you get:

            Made in Japan
            Timing chain
            1.8L VVT I4 Multiport FI (not DI!)
            CVT or 6MT
            IRS
            Standard alloys
            Standard PW/PL/PW with headed mirrors
            Six speaker Pioneer touchscreen radio with AUX and bluetooth
            Drives well, quiet inside, acceleration sluggish.
            EPA claims 28mpg city

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            She’d be looking at something used. Still, if there’s any used car I’d love to sell her on, it’s a Corolla. Since the iM is a hatchback, it avoids the stigma I’ve been hanging on Corollas since forever.

            Leasing something cheap might also be a good alternative. She’s gonna have student loans.

            Unfortunately, the one alternative that makes the most damn sense – buying the old Jetta – is the one she doesn’t want to take. She could pick it up for $9600 in November, but absolutely refuses to. Why? It’s a stick.

            (Insert sexist joke here.)

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I would recommend a used IM for the financially challenged but your Jetta is probably the best bet stick or not.

            I don’t know where Trinidad CO is but here ya go:

            https://www.phillongtoyota.com/vehicle-details/new-2018-toyota-corolla-im–trinidad-co-id-22682718#

            https://www.cargurus.com/Cars/t-Used-Toyota-Corolla-iM-Hatchback-Denver-t74115_L3898

          • 0 avatar
            PrincipalDan

            How about the Yaris (or Scion) iA?

            It’s technically a Mazda 2 and there’s a long equipment list standard.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            @Dan

            I would argue Auris is superior to Yaris but depending on funds one might shop Yaris.

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    I would think Subaru has a lot to do with keeping wagons on the radar. I would also like to see the working definition of station wagon now as most of the SUV/CUV things on the road are nothing more than jacked up station wagons.

    Maybe someone at Mazda will see this and bring the Mazda6 wagon to North America. That is one good looking car.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      I’m glad the author didn’t include the Outback as it is just a raise crossover with wagon propotions.

      • 0 avatar
        bullnuke

        Actually, Norm, the Outback in lowered form was marketed as a Legacy (or Liberty in Oz) wagon for several years outside the US and in the US until 2008 – 09. Never a crossover and based upon the Legacy sedan to the current day, it retains the wagon proportions. It’s a “wagon on stilts” as some like to say but nonetheless a wagon that handily outsells the others, even the ragingly successful Tour X which is based on a sedan product of a struggling European manufacturer.

      • 0 avatar
        Richard Chen

        “Some 212,000 wagons left U.S. dealer lots in 2018, representing a 29 percent sales increase compared to five years earlier.”

        Outback sold 178K last year, I don’t know how you get to 212K wagon sales in the US without it. Golf Sportwagen sales were 14,123.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Let’s just be honest and call every Subaru made (short of their new 3-row) a “wagon,” just like that Buick, which is basically an “outbacked” Regal, anyway. Heck, most of the “crossovers” on the market are little more than FWD wagons with an extra centimeter of ground clearance and some plastic tough(ish) body cladding.

    I’d argue that the market is actually almost all wagons these days, but nobody wants to call them that, especially for CAFE calculation purposes.

    Personally, I really like the look of theses wagons without the body cladding and fake off-road pretensions. I’d love the Buick even more without the cladding but I realize I’m in the minority here.

    On the other hand, my local Buick dealer has a big “$10,000 off” sign on his TourXs and this is in a town (in Northern Michigan) that looks like an unofficial Subaru test market most of the time. I’m amazed that it isn’t selling better than it is.

    • 0 avatar
      random1

      Agree completely on the body cladding. I think the V90 is gorgeous, the XC variant is all wrong. The fact that you can’t really see/drive one at your local dealer not helping at all. My father has always been a wagon guy, but couldn’t find the right one. We tried Buick, that thing is fugly in person. Loved the MB, couldn’t quite justify the price. And he wound up in an XC60. He hates it a few months in, and wished he ponied up for the MB. Now he’s looking at selling/trading in, going to make the MB all that much more expensive, effectively, in the end.

    • 0 avatar
      MrGreenMan

      “Heck, most of the “crossovers” on the market are little more than FWD wagons with an extra centimeter of ground clearance”

      This fact might help explain why crossovers are popular, and why enthusiasts wonder about the lack of difference between cars and crossovers:

      Ground clearance, 2016 Chevrolet Impala: 5.1″
      Ground clearance, 2016 Chevrolet Equinox: 6.9″

      It’s 4.5 centimeters.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Well, gosh, that Equinox is ready to climb some boulders with that extra 1.8 inches of clearance!

        • 0 avatar
          JRoth

          It’s 35% more clearance. The incidental fact that imperial units turn 35% into a small number doesn’t make a wrong assertion right.

          • 0 avatar
            stevelovescars

            The fact remains that the extra ground clearance is little more than academic since almost nobody ever actually needs it. It just serves to make the ride jiggly, the handling tippy, and enlarge the penis of the driver (in his or her head, at least).

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            You miss the point, Steve…it adds BUTCH!!!

  • avatar
    jatz

    Station wagons only ever became ubiquitous because a baby boom was happening in an increasingly affluent society and minivans had yet to be invented.

    None of those conditions is ever coming back to the US.

  • avatar
    Fred

    My local Buick dealer sold the one Regal wagon they had. Took about 6 months. I should also mention that my 2014 TSX wagon was on the lot for 10 months and salesman said no one (except me) has ever come in asking to see it.

    • 0 avatar
      stevelovescars

      I also had a BMW 525iT (a 2001) with a manual transmission for a couple of years. I loved the car. The local BMW dealers didn’t even know they made such a wagon or they were loath to order any.

      I ended up buying it used from a guy who had custom ordered it and had taken European delivery. I sold it after two years and had multiple buyers calling me from all over the country who wanted the manual transmission wagon.

      Your TSX is now in high demand and worth more than an equivalent sedan. Similar story for the values of other used wagons like the Jetta, the Jag X-Type, BMWs, etc. I bet the Buick will be a cult classic on the used car market like many of these others. Once again, the issue isn’t that there isn’t demand for these, there is a lack of interest by dealers to sell something slightly odd combined with the tendency of car enthusiasts to not buy NEW cars… perhaps we know better?

      • 0 avatar
        JRoth

        I’m about to embark on the purchase of a TourX, VW Sportwagen/AllTrack*, or Outback (my last choice, on paper at least). I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck with whatever’s on local lots. My preferred build of the TourX simply doesn’t seem to exist anywhere in my region.

        When I bought my ’01 Passat, I was unable to get my exact build, but they did bring one in from MD that was very close, and I basically didn’t pay for the stuff I didn’t want. In theory I might have that much leverage with the Buick, but they’re sop scarce that I doubt it will matter.

        *I prefer the Sportwagen, but VW has decontented them; frex, no sunroof available. I suspect I’ll end up with the one with cladding, against my wishes

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “almost violently opposed to being mainstream,”

    Why you son-of-a-b%&ch I’ll tear you…

    Oh sorry, proved your point.

    And let’s face it, it’s easier to sculpt a sexy wagon than a high-riding, bulbous crossover…

    Ding ding – the TourX is long and low in a way that the pictures don’t fully convey. My local Buick dealer has 2 but I’ll bet they’ll still be glued to the showroom floor when I’m shopping in June/July. Meanwhile they’ll have sold several Invasions (oops, Envisions) during the same timeframe.

  • avatar
    vb9594

    Ugh, here comes that guy who is going to say how he has a 2015 Volvo V60 T5 Platinum and it is an utterly fantastic wagon and way better than any stupid crossover.

    Yep, I’m that guy.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      I have much lust for the new V60 in AWD T6 (no R-design necessary for me) but I drive too many miles to lease my Volvo dealer is hundreds of miles away and I’ve heard Volvo is getting rid of their stupid long warranty for CPO models.

      Not very confidence inspiring.

      • 0 avatar
        vb9594

        I think they already made the adjustment…I can’t remember the difference but I don’t recall it being a tremendous difference. Perhaps more changes are coming.

        Meanwhile, mine is CPO’d right up to 100k miles. What a great warranty. We’ve put 10k miles on it so far with zero problems, btw.

  • avatar
    jfk-usaf

    Also that guy… Loved my 2015 XC70 T6. Tons of room and lots of power from the 3.0 inline 6. I eventually needed 7 seats and went to a 2017 XC90.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I still haven’t seen a Tour X or the pricier V90 in real life , I kinda think the Tour X looks good in photos. I know the interior gets a bad rap, for the price it’s a value with usual discounts applied.
    I have seen a few Jetta SW,hopefully manual transmission variants.

  • avatar
    SwiftLegend

    I heard the Buick uses a real crappy auto transmission in it. I am also a stick shift kinda guy as well. Otherwise I would seriously test drive one of these.

    Test drove a Mazda 6spd so far and loved it for the most part. Going to test drive a stick Crosstrek, and of course a Tacoma(crap mpg though).

    Yes, I am the 1% that still wants stick and follows through.

  • avatar
    Tstag

    As a new parent if twins I recently had to look for a car (in Europe) that could accommodate the massive pram and associate parifinalia that come with them. I looked at lots of SUVs initially only to realise that the boot space in most of them isn’t up to much.

    The XF Sportbrake turned out to be the most suitable car for our needs/ budget so we went with that in the end. It’s pretty good and one of the better cars in its class for room but it’s still not enough. I’m now eyeing a full size Discovery which perversely may be too big for our needs. What it really want is for Jaguar to make a f pace Sportbrake!

    • 0 avatar
      WallMeerkat

      Had similar, albeit with a single child. Needed a European car capable to handling prams etc. My old Saab 93 sedan was just the wrong shape. Ended up with an Octavia, which has a Buick Regal-style fastback, huge trunk space. If I needed more the wagon version is even bigger, and the larger Superb wagon is like a cavern (there’s a reason why they’re popular airport taxis)

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Love wagons, got burned twice though – nothing to do with them being wagons. 2004 Malibu Maxx: really great packaging, huge capacity in a smallish car, but hopeless build quality and even worse materials quality. It was fairly reliable, but repairs were strangely costly for a Chevy. Volvo 850GLE: great handling and brakes – completely hopeless HVAC, PCV, electronics systems. Volvo got the chassis done and ran out of money to properly design or source any of the car’s systems, absolute junk. I’d love to buy another wagon, but the only one that meets my quality/reliability needs is the Lexus IS300 Sportcross and they only made about 3,000 of those decades ago.

    • 0 avatar
      Fred

      The Acura is reliable. At 55,000 miles one of my tire pressure monitors has gone wacko, but I’m ignoring that for now. The only issues are can you live with the 4 cylinder, automatic and of course “the beak”

  • avatar
    NeilM

    “Heck, most of the “crossovers” on the market are little more than FWD wagons with an extra centimeter of ground clearance”

    Look again. Most crossovers have taller bodies (not just increased ground clearance). This in turn allows for a more upright seating position, effectively increased legroom, and greater cargo capacity.

    And of course the increased frontal area and worse gas consumption that goes with it.

    • 0 avatar
      smartascii

      I agree, except for cargo space. Because anything that’s too long looks like a wagon, CUVs are short. And that means less floor space than a wagon. If you regularly carry tall things that cannot be laid down, a CUV is better. But you can generally get more “stuff” in a wagon.

    • 0 avatar
      stevelovescars

      They also seem to have crappy exterior visibility due to increasingly tiny windows. Actually, my 5-series wagon had more cargo capacity than the contemporary X5 and it certainly wasn’t short on headroom. Other than maybe carrying a really large box upright in the back “some day,” that extra space is essentially wasted plus giving the negatives you mentioned.

      Wagons are easier to get into and out of for older folks (my elderly mother had to essentially be lifted in the front passenger seat of a friend’s Grand Cherokee, recently. Most wagons have a more traditional hip point.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    There’s a driver quality 2001 Audi A4 Avant for sale on BaT with like 200,000 miles on it bid up to 20 grand or something crazy like that. And it’s not even brown. If it was a sedan it’d be lucky to fetch 5 grand. Same thing happens when there’s an E63 or CTS-V wagon. It’ll sell for 5x what the sedan version would go for.

    I dunno. Seems to me there may be, sort of, a market for these kind of wagons? Just my layman’s opinion of course.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    I am a wagon guy, have owned a volvo xc wagon , 2 actually and a TDI wagon that VW was nice enough to buy back from me and my daughter drives a saab 93 wagon I picked up for her to replace a volvo wagon that someone decided to drive into. I have seen the Buick wagon in red at my local dealer and it looks nice from the outside. The only one I bought new was the VW but I can see myself in another wagon in a few years, I can not see myself in a CUV at all. I have yet to see a Jag wagon in the wild.

  • avatar
    Spike_in_Brisbane

    Last week a good friend of mine bought a Mazda6 wagon.
    He is in love.

  • avatar
    FAHRVERGNUGEN

    Just reached 110k miles on my ’05 Legacy GT wagon and I’m hoping it will last years longer. It’s a perfect blend of power and pleasure, and I really don’t want to think about how to replace it. Just have to learn how to drive with my head in the sand.

  • avatar
    Svoboda123

    Great year? Meh. The point of a wagon is handling and efficiency with cargo space. If Honda made an Accord Sport Wagon 4T and didn’t screw up the styling from the sedan it would sell boatloads at $28k. Make it an Acura at $42k and it will tank. The Buick is pleasant looking but no way will it be dynamic.

    I have owned most of the great hot wagon models to hit these shores. Slim pickings these days. Hatchbacks a dying breed too. And friends don’t let friends drive Subarus. The Outback especially. Says “I have given up on life. Just make mine 17 feet of CAR.”


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