Rebirth, or Looming Fizzle? The Station Wagon Had a Pretty Good Year in 2018

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
rebirth or looming fizzle the station wagon had a pretty good year in 2018

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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  • FAHRVERGNUGEN FAHRVERGNUGEN on Jan 08, 2019

    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.

  • Svoboda123 Svoboda123 on Jan 08, 2019

    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."

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?
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