Most of us are old enough to remember the days when mom and dad would load all the kids into the station wagon along with the dog and a giant picnic basket for a fun-filled weekend at the state park. With the triangular vent windows cracked and the kids facing out the back glass, American families would embark on these rigorous, patience testing road trips in order to see monuments and destinations all across the lower 48 states and beyond. Life was good within the spacious confines of the American station wagon, and we were buying them up with wild abandon every year.
But after a while, American values began to change, and families didn’t travel like they used to. Route 66 began to shrivel up and fall into disrepair, as many Americans opted for the far faster freeways that were popping up across the landscape. A sudden spike in divorce rates in the 1960s didn’t help matters much either, as single parents remained uninspired over the notion of tackling a family trip on their own. Then along came the hippies, with their bellicose attitude toward capitalistic conformity and their strong disdain for the thought of settling down in order to lead a “station wagon-rich suburban existence.”
Flash forward another decade to the 1970s, and things aren’t much better for the wagon, as the oil crisis that put many family road trips on the back-burner gave way to an increased popularity in the compact car. The 1980s were more of the same, as they ushered in a wildly popular family vehicle called “the minivan,” shortly followed by the marketing of the full-sized SUV to suburban housewives.
By the 1990s, SUVs were leading minivans in sales due to their four-wheel drive capabilities, masculine appeal, and unconquerable towing capacity. Once the crossover came into favor in the early 2000s, and Americans began jumping for joy over the idea of superior fuel economy and an even more utilitarian design, it was obvious that the wagon was indeed a dying breed that was lounging on the ledge of extinction.
Today, there are only a handful of automakers who build and market a station wagon to the American consumer, and even they are likely wondering if it’s worth the effort. Even Volvo, a long-time leader in the production and sales of station wagons, has become increasingly reliant on the crossover, and many recent attempts by auto manufacturers to resurrect interest in the elongated hatchback have proved fruitless. So is the station wagon really doomed, or could this just be some sort of long overdue comeback story? For as skeptical as many members of the media and automakers may be, there’s still a chance that a wagon renaissance may come about. We just have to first look at what family cars are selling well in America, and then figure out if it’s something that leaves room for the return of the station wagon.
With wagon specialist Saab out of business, the short-lived TSX wagon officially put to pasture, and Volvo hitting a home run with its completely redesigned XC90 SUV, things are looking pretty bleak for the wagon market as a whole right now. But there’s a silver lining in every story, because despite their lack of popularity, there are still quite a few wagons being produced for the American market, and what’s more is that some of them are actually selling. Here are a few winners we found that might just hold the line until we see wagon-rich roadways once more.
It’s important to note that not all of these cars will fit the preconceived mold of what a traditional wagon is or should be. Constantly evolving technologies, designs, and customer preferences are powerful forces, and these cars reflect these trends, starting with the Volvo V60. With its sporty handling, roomy interior, available integrated booster seat, 30 mile per gallon efficiency gains, and notorious Volvo safety ratings, it’s no wonder the Swedish-based company continues to market and sell this kind of car to Americans. Critics rave that this car is the perfect vehicle for bringing wagons back into the mainstream, and Car and Driver calls “it’s the poster car for its class.”
Other strong contenders that come from European breeding, are the BMW 328i Sport Wagon, Audi Allroad, and Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen, all of whom go toe-to-toe with one another with their all-wheel drive footing and increasingly clever storage situations. There also are a few wild cards that should not be overlooked, including the Mercedes Benz E-Class, with its traditional rear facing third-row seat, and Lexus’ hybrid-powered CT 200h. Then there’s the Legacy wagon by Subaru, and the utterly indestructible Outback, which continues to be a strong seller here in America despite its bloated size and pour-over into the crossover space (it was a true wagon at one point, we promise).
So there are still have some strong contenders out there on the market, and amazingly, some of them are still American-made. But how well are they selling? In short, better than expected. According to a report by Subaru, the company is having difficulties keeping wagon options in stock, with the Outback leading the charge. While these numbers are by no means astronomical when compared to overall hybrid and crossover sales figures, it still offers some positive traction for the segment, giving hope to other wagon makers who need data to rally around.
So is there any hope that the station wagon will ever be restored to its previous glory? We hate to say it, but no, probably not. There might be an upswing in sales, but it’s highly unlikely that most American families will ditch SUVs and minivans in order to revert to station wagons. As a culture we have gotten so used to stepping up into spacious SUV cabins that the thought of stooping down into a wagon seems counter-intuitive to the very evolution of the automobile.
According to a report by the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has “quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years,” and since many of these kids are considered “likely to be obese as adults,” their role in what sells tends to tip the scales. Publications like Autoblog and USA Today have conducted in-depth features on this unusual (but highly unsurprising) market swing, further explaining why large vehicles with spacious seating are still in such high demand.
But we won’t give up so easily, and there are a few other factors out there that could bring the wagon back into mainstream favor, with exterior design preferences, fuel costs, and changing demands from younger auto buyers at the forefront. While efficient economy cars are cute and practical to a point, millennials and a lot of Generation Z vehicle owners will eventually realize that there isn’t room in their compact car for baby seats, spouses, groceries, friends, dogs, and a few items from IKEA. These drivers have also already begun to develope their own grown-up tastes, as they realize that it’s time do away with fun cars from college, and that upgrading to a family car with better safety ratings and a roomier interior is now a priority.
Perhaps Audi said it best at last year’s Geneva International Motor Show, when they called the Prologue Avant their next generation of wagon, and that it offered everyone “A glance into the future.” The evolution of wagons may not be one where it turns into this elongated family car, but perhaps a sedan with a fastback-looking rear-end, aggressive lines, powerful engine, and sporty handling instead. Audi isn’t the only one looking this direction either, as Autoblog called the sensational looking Kia “Sportspace” concept seen here a “big, red wagon that previews the future.” All we have to do now is pray that it actually goes into production someday and doesn’t just wind up on European and Korean shores.
There’s a lot that can be offered to buyers via the purchase of a modern day station wagon, the average American just needs to realize that they don’t always have to have a large car in order to get all of the amenities they crave. A wagon can offer almost everything a crossover can, with all-wheel drive, a roomy interior, rugged off-road ground clearance, tech galore, turbo-diesel torque and efficiency, and stylish street cred for around town shopping adventures. Long gone are the lumbering fake-wood, vinyl-sided, over-sized tissue boxes of the 1980s. It’s a new dawn for the American driver, and it’s about damn time we all wake up and realize that bigger doesn’t always equal better.