Station wagons are the stuff of fond childhood memory, if your family had one in the years before SUV ubiquity. Mostly they were clunky behemoths, transitioned over years from useful child-rearing implement to embarrassing high school chariot.
In my family, the story goes like this: as a bachelor, my dad drove a 325i BMW (after his first wife and before my mom). Once I was on the way (/in the oven), reality bit and the bimmer was traded for a Volvo 240 station wagon. Silver with blue vinyl and a solid white headliner…it was the ultimate in rubberized child safety. In that car, the sun was perpetually too high to be blocked by the roof and too low to be blocked by the sun visor. I spent many hours hot and miserable in the backseat, skin stuck to the seat. But in it, I also felt safe. My mom always touted its heft for being safer on the road in the war against all other drivers.
Later on we had another (1999) Volvo V70, and then most recently a 2011 Volvo V50, which is smaller than the current V70 but nearly the same size as the original 240. It’s a lot more stylish than the original 240, though. It has slick matte finish wood trim that looks straight out of a Room & Board catalog. As it turns out, my family is among only a handful of others that have loyally purchased wagons over time.
If you hadn’t noticed…the model type has become nearly extinct in the years since the birth of the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Utility vehicles and their myriad offspring have proven far more popular with the buying public, although this is chiefly an American trend. Elsewhere, wagons are consistently purchased in volumes more proportionate to their sedan counterparts. One reason might be that they’re branded more stylishly – as ‘estate cars’ in Britain and ‘touring models’ on mainland Europe.
In many ways, the American fixation on SUVs and their likeness is illogical. On most categories of comparison, wagons win outright. They tend to be lighter, more fuel-efficient and aerodynamic, and frankly, more fun to drive. They make minor adjustments to utility and space but ultimately preserve the driving feel and experience of their sedan counterparts. If the starting point wasn’t bad to drive, the end result won’t be either.
With the development of all wheel drive systems, they’re also just as able-footed on questionable surfaces as SUVs, although their height disadvantage is obvious. But who really uses their SUV for anything other than normal driving? But…I know…wagon’s aren’t cool. Ever since you got stuck with the wood-paneled one as your first car. Or the whole family plus dogs too got stuffed into one for a holiday roadtrip. (those are both clichÃ©s from 1980s movies, not your actual experience/memory!)
Lately though, minor blips of their niche hipness have appeared. Mercedes has waved the magic AMG wand over the E-class wagon to get the stealthy E63, which rings in at an icy hot $100k. Cadillac turned its CTS into a 5-door recently, and BMW, despite rumors, will bring the latest iteration of the 3-series in wagon form back to the US. I couldn’t be more excited.
Less traditional wagon shapes have appeared too in the form of the Porsche Panamera, BMW 5-series GT, and Audi A7…all niche models blurring the line between sedan and wagon (hatchback!). But don’t ever call them hatchbacks.
Little did I know, until a friend pointed it out, I have been driving the ‘wagon’ Mini (i.e. Clubman) for nearly two years. It has a slightly extended shape but with more rear-seat room and a larger cargo area. Perfect for rectangular objects, and four whole people instead of two and two halves. I like the look of the standard Mini, but the Clubman has a certain utilitarian, rectangular look too that I can appreciate.
Then again, I’ve always liked wagons.