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Station Wagon

April 14, 2017 In the News, Reviews

Return of the Station Wagon

By John Lamm

Station wagons.

Many of us grew up in them. The green 2-door Plymouth Suburban. The red and white Ford Parklane with the Thunderbird V-8. That slow-as-a-slug 6-cylinder automatic Chevy Kingswood. Like the dog, they were lovable members of the family.

If you are less than about 55 years of age, that paragraph likely means nothing. You possibly grew up in minivans or SUVs. Too bad. You missed a sweet spot in the automotive timeline. Then again, hope is not lost. Station wagons are still around…in style and utility if not in name.

They were called station wagons because they were originally devised to take people to and from stations. In the beginning, the vehicles often had hand-built wooden bodies. Then steel took over, though homage was long played to the segment’s heritage with “woodie” station wagon options.

Come 1976, station wagons were 10 percent of the vehicle market, more than 970,000 sold. They were also on their way out. The 1976 Buick in the below photo weighed just over 5100 pounds and needed a thirsty 455-cubic-inch V-8 to get the job done. Worse yet, the car’s handling has been described as that of a bathtub half-full of water.

1976 Buick

Definitely not the vehicle for the future, given the fuel economy standards put into effect after the 1973-1974 Arab Oil Crisis, ready to hit automakers right between the headlights in 1978.

Thanks to Chrysler, minivans became the people hauler of choice after 1984 and by the mid-1990s there were civilized SUVs to tempt families. Then came the CUV. Wikipedia’s definition says it, “…is a vehicle built on a car platform and combining, in highly variable degrees, features of a sport utility vehicle (SUV) with features from a passenger vehicle, especially those of a station wagon or hatchback.”

1941 Chrysler Town & Country

In other words, an automaker can make up its definition of a CUV as it goes along.

It’s easy to understand why automaker’s marketeers dig deep into their cauldron of adjectives to describe a vehicle as a CUV or SUV rather than a station wagon. These days, station wagons make up just 1.1 percent of vehicles sold. CUVs, on the other hand, were 33.9 percent of vehicle sales in the first three months of 2017.

Karl Brauer, analyst at Kelly Blue Book adds, “No car maker wants to admit to making a station wagon because of the stigma still attached to that word, so most of them use phrases like ‘crossover’ or ‘sportwagon’ to avoid visions of Chevy Chase driving across America in the Griswold family’s Truckster.

“The good news is, no matter what you call them, these vehicles all offer greater utility and flexibility than a similarly sized sedan. If we all have to nod our heads and agree not to use the term ‘station wagon’ so be it.”

Mercedes-Benz GLA45AMG

Arguably the most glaring example of redefining the wagon might be Mercedes-Benz’ GLA250 and AMG GLA45. The automaker labels them SUVs when it in reality, they are attractive, sweet-size station wagons with lower cladding and a bit more ground clearance.

Volvo has long been what you might call the “keeper of the keys” when it comes to station wagons. Most all of us who owned one have warm memories of them, whether a 122, the 145 or my intercooled Turbo Wagon that could chase down pony cars.

The Swedish automaker’s U.S. product manager, Anders Robertson, explains how they managed to have what they freely call a station wagon.

Volvo V90 Cross Country

Their XC90 is an SUV. Designed on the same platform is the V90 Cross Country, “It’s not as extreme as an SUV, but based on a wagon with more ground clearance and all-wheel drive standard. It has basically the off-road capabilities of the SUV type of vehicles, providing the agility of an SUV with the road holding a sedan.” Volvo calls it a Crossover Wagon.

Remove the added ground clearance and the cladding along the lower sill and wheel arches and you have the V90 station wagon.

Volvo does this dance with its XC60, V60 Cross Country and V60 station wagon.

In a comment that underlines another reason other than stigma why many automakers avoid station wagons, Robertson admits they will only sell a few hundred V90 wagons. Once the XC90 and V90 Cross Country were certified for U.S. sale, so was the V90. If you want one, you custom order it from the dealer or online and wait about 3 months for the car.

Volvo V90 Wagon

So why does Volvo go through the effort? “We have a fan base,” Robertson points out. “A heritage. People who want the wagon know we have it.”

Which does nothing to explain the newest station wagon headed for the U.S. market. Buick’s Regal TourX. It is based on the station wagon version of the Insignia made by Opel, which General Motors recently sold to France’s PSA.

Images of the Insignia wagon show no lower cladding or increased ride height, but there they are on the TourX. Sorry, Buick, it’s still a station wagon…and a handsome one. Power comes from a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with an estimated 250 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.  The transmission is an 8-speed automatic and all-wheel drive is standard.

Buick Regal TourX ~Image courtesy of Buick~

We’ve assembled a gallery of images of some vehicles we consider to be station wagons. And we’d be curious to hear your opinions.

Audi A4 Allroad ~Image courtesy of Audi~

Audi E-Tron ~Image courtesy of Audi~

Callaway AeroWagon ~Image courtesy of Callawway~

1961 Dodge Lancer station wagon ~Image courtesy of Dodge~

Fiat 500L

Ford C-Max Hybrid

Kia Niro

The Mercedes-AMG E63 S Wagon ~Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz~

Mini Cooper Clubman ~Image courtesy of Mini Cooper~

Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo ~Image courtesy of Porsche~

Toyota Prius V ~Image courtesy of Toyota~

Volkswagen Golf Alltrack

Volkswagen Sportwagon 4Motion

The wagon from National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movie starting Chevy Chase is almost as beautiful as…

Rendering of a Porsche Panamera “Woodie” wagon. LARSON/PCA

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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.

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8 Responses

  1. James Wilmot-Smith

    I treasure my Mercedes W124 300TE and if I could find a low mileage example, I’d buy it to hold in reserve for the day the current one expires. By the way, as I’m sure you know, we call them estate cars over here. Maybe that’s less derogatory that “station wagon”.

  2. Dean Koehler

    In the discussion of stylish station wagons one must include the ’72-’73 model year Volvo 1800ES Sport Wagon. Always a favorite.

  3. Allen Stephens

    Great piece John. The best all around car I have owned is my current 2005 Mercedes-Benz E500 Station Wagon. Comfortable, carries a lot stuff, and fast. What else could you ask for?

  4. Raoul E. San Giorgi

    dear readers ,
    since my impression is that we can share thoughts and memories here, I write the following . I am well over the age of 55 ,so, yes I remember the wagon era .
    I always liked the bigger americain cars , really .
    Over the years I became known as an Alfa man , specially focussed on models up to the 1900 . So,in a way, I was supposed to be a ” one make only ” guy …
    Well, no longer ..
    In my youth , my best friends father drove big GM build cars .( being CEO of a Europe based US company) .
    When he came home with a 66 Malibu wagon , I was totally blown away by its appearance .
    BIG V8 engine, 7 seater ,very nice shade of green ( metallic ?) , not to forget : the sound .
    And the ease it took 7 passengers …
    Ever since I knew that one day I would own something similar .
    A car that was always in a corner of my mind was the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Town and Country Wagon . Based on the 300 .
    Not 54 , not 56 , just the 55 .
    A new design by Virgil Exner , very balanced car . The proportions almost perfect ,albeit a big big car . Relatively small amount of chrome . Really the ” 100 million $ look ” as they advertised . And very rare indeed . I think approx 750 build or so.
    So, when one came up for sale , I had to buy it .
    And discovered I am in for a major restoration … ( again ) .
    ( Scott Sargent called me and told me ” Raoul , you realise you’re in for a major job ” ) ..
    Maybe the webmaster could publish a picture of the 55 model where you can see it parked in front of a prop airplane with a happily laughing couple next to it .
    And I can confirm I like the Mercedes first series T wagons as well as Mr. Wilmot-Smith
    does .
    I am the happy owner of 2 1967 230S Fintail models which were modified into stationwagon by a Belgium Company called IMA . They had Mercedes Benz approval, you could buy them trough the dealer net . There even are official (but very rare) brochures .
    Happy Easter to all .
    And John , thanks for the nice article .
    Raoul E. San Giorgi

  5. clarke

    I love wagons. While many cars now may be referred to as wagons, they are wagon replacements for the manufacturers. Most are crossovers, mini-SUVs, or minivans. In the US with the fuel significantly cheaper than Europe the SUV is king & the wagon was mostly cut from the marketplace. Whereas in Europe where you’re likely paying $5/gallon or more. The wagon is the utilitarian (replacement SUV) which can carry a lot & fit down their narrow city roads.

    Several of the cars above are either hatchbacks or minivans without a sliding door. The trunk should be the equivalent of taking a sedan & extending the roofline all the way back. Thus you should be able to leave all the seats up & still store several cases of win’e/beer/books, or 1-2 golf bags without any of them encroaching on the passengers.

    I grew up in wagons & SUVs (before that moniker existed). The first one I bought was an 06 Audi S4 Avant, which I woefully miss. May friends who are tall loved the Ford Taurus wagon as it offered great head & leg room with ample storage. Similarly large & refined wagons of recent years are the Volvo V90, Saab 9-5, MB E (300TD/E), Audi A6, & BMW 5. Most of which are no longer imported/made. There were many huge American wagons, like the Buick Coachbuilder which likely had more storage than most SUVs, which ironically killed their production.

  6. Richard Collier

    Thank you, John for the SW/Estate car plug, and the marvelous pix. Last Detroit product I bought new was 1964 Buick wagon – the smaller one – and the perfect size. With that wonderful small (3.5 liter) V-8. Dark metallic blue, tan interior; a real stunner.
    Robbie loves her Allroad, which is unabashedly a wagon. And my 2006 Saab Aero wagon resides happily in Maine, a truly great piece of design, utility and engineering (pre-GM).

  7. James Spina

    Currently driving a 2006 Malibu Maxx SS which is a bit of a stretch on the “wagon” definition but with 270 hp, a lift gate on the rear and 8 extra inches of rear passenger room I’d say I’m qualifying as a WAGON GUY. I definitely interested in the new Buick and those wagon Volvos (old and new) always get my GO.
    I think you are on to something…a surge is coming and none too soon since the shape of the small and mid sized SUV/Cross Overs have hit critical MASSively ugly.

  8. andrew sapiro

    how ’bout my wagon?
    got an ’04 Mazda 6 Wagon –
    with manual transmission
    send me a link for a picture

    abs miami

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