There are many people for whom a station wagon remains the ideal vehicle and there are a few wagons still available to fill that need.
Station wagons were the do-all family cars of the 1950s through the '70s. But that role was effectively usurped by minivans in the '80s and, since the turn of the century, it has been taken over by SUVs and CUVs. Still, there are many people for whom a station wagon remains the ideal vehicle and there are a few wagons still available to fill that need. But just what constitutes a station wagon these days? It's not an easy question to answer.
When, exactly, does bread become toast? At what moment in the transformation, catalyzed by the ubiquitous toaster, does warming bread become glorious, crispy toast? Kitchen philosophers have been agonizing over it for decades. Similarly, we wonder at what point does a hatchback become a station wagon? Both offer one-piece tailgates and fold-down rear seats. Was the recently retired Toyota Matrix a hatchback or a station wagon variant of the Corolla? We’ve seen scribes go both ways on this one.
Is the curious Kia Soul a tall wagon or a clever crossover? Nobody knows; it’s a conundrum for the ages. Suffice it to say a station wagon has to share traits with the 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire that people of a certain vintage traveled in to summer camp. Critically, it has to have enough room for a couple of duffle bags and something carved from an old log. The Matrix and the Soul don’t cut it. So here’s our collection of real wagons you can buy today.
Originally designed for the tall-wagon market that sells well everywhere but in North America, Kia’s Rondo is essentially a station wagon with some attic room. It has the distinction of being available with third-row seating, but without it (or keep the small bench retracted except for emergency use) and the Rondo provides a cavernous cargo space in a reasonably small footprint. Interior finishes have been upgraded as part of the 2014 redesign, making the Rondo a pleasant space to spend some time. Clever touches include under-floor storage, a cooled glovebox and a rechargeable flashlight in the cargo hold.
The new-generation Rondo has only one engine on offer – previous models accommodated an optional V-6 – but the direct-injected 2.0-litre four-cylinder, good for 164 horsepower, is reasonably adept at moving the Rondo smartly since it went on a diet of high-strength steel. Base models can be had with a six-speed manual transmission – a pleasant surprise – but most buyers opt for the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic. Ride and handling traits are good at this price point (which starts at $21,295), and the Rondo is engineered to be quiet, even if the family offspring it ferries around are not.
With the demise of the Matrix and econobox wagons such as the Hyundai Elantra Touring, Volkswagen’s all-new Golf Sportwagon has become the de facto entry-level family hauler, starting at $22,495. The joy in this is the choice it brings to the segment: buyers can get a six-speed manual gearbox or fast-acting dual clutch automatic, a turbocharged 1.8-litre gasoline engine or VW’s vaunted 2.0-litre turbodiesel TDI, and three distinct trim levels. All Sportwagons are front-wheel drive at the moment, but all-wheel drive is promised in the near future.
Like all Volkswagens, the Golf Sportwagon brings the usual Teutonic characteristics of a handsome interior, supportive seating, spirited acceleration and great driving dynamics inherent to the chassis. Plus the cargo area is quite generously sized for a compact, and users no longer have to fuss with the rear head restraints when folding the back seats. Ask any current Sportwagon owner why they like their ride and be prepared for a very long speech (hopefully with coffee). Leave it to a company with “wagen” in the name to build the quintessential compact wagon.
There’s no argument here: seeing as the regular Toyota Prius is a hatchback by definition, the Prius V only makes sense in the lineup as a five-seater station wagon. Measuring 2.5-centimetres wider, 15-cm longer and 7.5-cm taller than the regular model, the V offers 60% more cargo capacity (the V stands for Versatility, incidentally). In every other way, however, the Prius V delivers the same awesome benefits of the world’s most popular gas-electric hybrid, including impressive fuel economy and stainless green cred.
Powering the bigger Prius V is the same Atkinson-cycle 1.8-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine seamlessly working in tandem with two electric motors and a battery pack. Combined output is 134 horsepower, which means this heavy front-driver tends to plod along, rather than deliver anything resembling caffeinated performance. The interior is vintage Jetsons-era. Unfortunately, the main instruments are mounted in the centre rather than behind the steering wheel – a design quirk that’s won few fans. At least the split-folding rear bench reclines and slides fore and aft, allowing users to choose between generous legroom, expansive cargo capacity or a compromise between the two.
When it came to planning the fifth generation of Subaru’s renowned Outback wagon, it surveyed existing owners to uncover their likes and dislikes. Not surprisingly, Outback scored highest among people with active lifestyles – those fanatical about hiking, biking, skiing and kayaking – anything that involved strapping sports equipment to the roof. They cited the Outback’s reliability, cargo room, low profile and all-wheel-drive capability as synonymous with the nameplate. Don’t dismiss the lower roof height as a key benefit: have you ever tried lashing a canoe on the roof of a Toyota Highlander without a stepladder?
Making return engagements are the 2.5-litre flat-four cylinder engine making 175 horsepower and the 3.6-L DOHC flat-six (“H6”), which is good for 256 horsepower. Being horizontally opposed “boxer” engines, both enjoy primary and second-order balance by design, a shorter and stiffer crankshaft and can accommodate equal-length driveshafts, hence Subaru’s unique symmetrical AWD powertrain as standard equipment. Mounted low in the engine bay, the boxers lend the Outback better handling traits both on the asphalt and on backwoods trails. New refinements give the Outback the goods to chase upmarket targets, including wagons from Audi and Volvo – no small feat.
Toyota used to make a wagon version of its popular Camry sedan, which was remembered for its oddball twin wipers sweeping the rear window. It eventually faded away, but Toyota saw fit to bring back the Camry wagon in another form: the Venza. When it was launched in the throes of the Great Depression it sold well, in part due to its bold design and clever touches. Despite being labeled as a crossover, consumers saw it for what it really was: a cool wagon. It won praise for its comfy carlike comportment and roomy interior, all wrapped in some pretty swoopy sheetmetal.
Nearing the end of its production run today, it continues to offer two engines – a 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine rated at 182 horsepower and Toyota’s familiar 3.5-litre V-6 that pumps out 268 horsepower. Both work through a silky six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive remains an option. The cabin is distinctive and functional, punctuated by an artful instrument panel design. The Venza’s large doors and low step-in height make it an exceptionally convenient wagon for buyers with mobility constraints. The rear bench offers ample legroom with the added benefit of seatbacks that recline.
The marque that was once synonymous with the boxy station wagon, Volvo had to find its bearings again under the stewardship of new owner Zhejiang Geely of China. Consider that in 2011 Volvo stopped selling front-drive wagons altogether. That’s changed now, with the Volvo V60 being a noteworthy addition. Based on the comely S60 sedan, the wagon version doesn’t rely on a straight line anywhere in the sheetmetal, and the sloping roof – while it cuts into cargo capacity significantly – represents a welcome departure from the hearse-like wagons Volvo used to sell to its fervent followers.
The V60 features three engines of various strengths: the 2.0-litre Drive-E turbo four, good for 240 horsepower; the familiar 2.5-litre turbo five-cylinder (250 horsepower) that employs the old six-speed automatic transmission tied to Haldex all-wheel drive; and the 325-horsepower 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six that graces the top-of-the-line T6 R-Design, also with all-wheel drive. The V60 is more a driver’s car than a family hauler extraordinaire; it works as advertised, but cargo room could be better. Fortunately, Volvo continues to sell the old XC70, which offers considerably more usable space in an all-wheel-drive wagon that channels the Subaru Outback.
The spiritual successor to that iconic LTD Country Squire we mentioned off the top is Ford’s Flex. Lauded for its bold design and clever details, it’s been called a crossover, a sport-ute and a minivan, yet none of these handles stick as well as “station wagon.” Taking its inspiration from a refrigerator carton, it’s essentially a box, so it’s able to easily swallow lots of cargo and people (seven seats are available). Its third-row bench is comfortable enough for real adults with abundant headroom and large windows that eliminate the claustrophobia inherent in the back seat of many SUVs. Nostalgically, all that’s missing is the backward-facing seats.
The 2015 Flex comes with a 3.5-litre V-6 engine that produces 287 horsepower directed to the front wheels through a standard six-speed automatic transmission. Optional is Ford’s EcoBoost 3.5-litre turbocharged V-6 that makes 365 horsepower and drives all four wheels (all-wheel drive is also available with the non-turbo V-6) in a combination that really invigorates the big Flex. The exceptionally quiet cabin features an appealing layout and abundant soft-touch materials. Unique features include an optional mini-fridge and inflatable outboard rear seatbelts – an industry first.
Audi’s Allroad is a sub-brand that has found a small but loyal fan base. With standard all-wheel drive providing reassuring traction in all weather conditions, the A4-based Allroad wagon also incorporates a lifted suspension, yielding 18 cm of ground clearance that helps in ex-urban areas with lumpy lanes and gravel driveways. Still, the Allroad remains low enough to simulate a sporty A4 from behind the wheel, with responsive steering and road-hugging manners that reward the pilot. There’s little in the way of compromise evident in the Allroad.
Powering every 2015 Allroad is Audi’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder TFSI engine that produces 220 horsepower in this application. The only transmission is an eight-speed automatic with manual shift control – a bit of a letdown considering even Kia offers a six-speed manual gearbox in its everyday Rondo. Audi makes up for it with a stellar interior that features an elegant design and top-notch materials, including standard leather upholstery. Compared to other luxury wagons, the Allroad provides a smallish cargo hold behind the rear bench; there are others that provide more utility for fewer dollars. Still, there are few marques that promise the same kind of presence.
The first name in European sports sedans can rightfully add station wagons to its repertoire. The BMW 3 Series Touring is not the first wagon to grace its showrooms, but it may be one of the best to date. Small by definition, it nonetheless comes packed with many of the same features that make the 3 such a memorable driver’s car, including the same stout architecture, finely tuned suspension geometry and refined drivetrains. As a wagon, the 3 Touring offers about the same cargo space as the Audi Allroad, which is to say adequate but hardly generous.
Shop the Touring model, however, and some of the 3’s expansive equipment choices get deleted. There are only two available engines and the slick manual transmission is nowhere to be seen. The 328i employs a 240-horsepower version of the base 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine. The 328d uses a DOHC 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel that makes 181 horsepower and a robust 280 lb-ft of torque, which provides an energetic drive under most conditions. Both work through the standard eight-speed automatic transmission and Xdrive all-wheel-drive system. The 3 wagon commands a considerable price premium – starting at $47,850 – but that’s seemingly the going rate for Bimmer bliss.
The definitive doktor’s car has offered a wagon model for years, yet inexplicably, many Mercedes-Benz shoppers bypass the E-Class wagon in favour of the marque’s hot-selling sport utilities. Redirecting their attention might yield substantially better sales, since the estate wagon can do so much. Then again, with a lofty starting price of $77,000 it should. In a throwback to simpler times, the sumptuous cabin includes a steering-column mounted gear selector that frees up space on the centre console for Mercedes’ COMAND electronics interface, considered one of the better systems to come from Germany.
The interior is supremely comfortable and quiet, with few mechanical noises allowed to infiltrate the cocoon. The wagon offers exceptional cargo volume in addition to its rear-facing (LTD-like) third-row bench that gives it seven-passenger capacity in a pinch. Engines include the 3.0-litre bi-turbo V6 that generates 329 horsepower in the E 400, and the outrageous 577-horsepower bi-turbo 5.5-litre V8 in the E 63 AMG S. In keeping with the newfound German tradition these days, the wagon is only offered with the automaker’s 4matic all-wheel-drive system and seven-speed automatic transmission. The equipment levels are handpicked to ensure the wagon delivers the comfort, performance and comportment befitting the E-Class.
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