Choosing an Adventure Vehicle Part II: Reconsidering the Station Wagon

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The age of the station wagon is coming to an end, according to our buds Tom and Ray of Car Talk (actually, it's Jim Motavalli). Maybe you're sighing in relief. Maybe you're saying, "No duh, bro." Maybe you're dropping a tear for those old summer road trips in which you soaked up thousands of miles of paved America, rocking out via Sony Walkman on your head.

Play the video just to hear the song play as you read. It'll set the mood just right.

Surprisingly, in the current craze for "going green," SUVs that'll drink you under the table are still far more popular than station wagons. Wagons have the distinct advantages of better fuel mileage, better aerodynamics and handling, and equal or comparable cargo space. Yet the sales are horrendous. Volvo, for instance, sold fewer than 2,000 wagons in the U.S. in 2010. So why are station wagons so unpopular? It can't be looks or performance; modern station wagons are classy and rival some sports cars. We haven't seen fake wood paneling in a long time, either. On the flip side, the Toyota Prius holds position as one unsightly automobile with rocketing sales. Wrapping those babies in 2,000 square feet of imitation wood might actually make them look better.

Long before our own loving and lovable parents strapped us down to the bench seat of that nightmare otherwise known as Buick Roadmaster (replace with your own wood-paneled childhood fiasco) and yelled, "SHUTUP! DO YOU WANT ME TO TURN THIS THING AROUND RIGHT NOW?", station wagons were - get this - absolutely cool. Consider a 1949 Ford Woody with surfboards on top, the grandfather of the modern station wagon.  Need I say more?

The ultimate adventure station wagon? You decide. 1949 Ford Woody with Surfboard

Yes. Like all awesome things from the age of yore, the consuming American public took a beautiful thing and, well, multiplied, diluted, and made it so mediocre that each of our dads bought one. And then the manufacturers (de)evolved to wrapping imitation wood around the exterior, in some pathetic attempt to pioneer a style and I don't think we need to go any further.

Could the demise of the station wagon rest at our heels only because you and I can't get over our childhood memories of them? We can't get past what they did to us? 12-hour driving days with dad at the helm, pancake breakfasts at McDonalds, lousy pools at even lousier hotels . . . We can't get past that, once upon a time, the public actually thought imitation wood paneling was awesome? So we're going to make station wagons pay. And pumping gasoline into our 9-miles-per-gallon Ford Excursions at just under $4.00 a gallon won't change our minds. Is that how deep our hatred of station wagons runs?

Maybe we should get over it. We parents who love a good road trip are indebted to station wagons for numerous milestones of the American 1970s and 1980s. They took us to monuments like Mount Rushmore and Disney World, they took us to get our braces tweaked, they took us to homecoming dances, they ushered in the phrase, "Are we there yet?" And they made a very fine blockade for going pee on the side of the highway. If it weren't for the station wagon, would America have needed Clark Griswold? Here's to you, noble station wagon!

Here's the good news: All you have to do is install a set of Thule or Yakima bars on top of a current wagon, add a bike holder or kayak carrier, and wham, you have the coolest adventure station wagon around. I don't know if that says more about Thule and Yakima or station wagons. If you think you need a SUV, reconsider.

What Do You Think of The Selection of Station Wagons Found in North America?:

dodge magnum station wagon
Dodge Magnum - Actually, this one stopped production in 2008, but it also had mannerisms much like a sports car. You can get low-miles Magnums used today.

subaru outbak wagon
Subaru Outback - all wheel drive, boxer motor that lasts forever, and decent styling. No wonder it's popular for families in places like Denver and Salt Lake City. A talk with a salesman at my local Subaru dealership revealed they try to compete with the Honda CR-V. Can you believe that? I'd always put Subarus in their own category, certainly above the CR-V. I didn't feel right behind the wheel of it, though, and moved on to an Audi A3.

bmw station wagon 5 series
BMW 5-Series - Bimmer style and class in a spacious wagon sounds like a winner.  Envision a carbon fiber Cannondale on top.

Ford Flex - Would you believe that the stripey panel on the back door is supposed to give a nod to the old wood paneling we were just razzing? This baby has 10 places to stick your Mountain Dew, and depending on the seating arrangement, 20, 43, or 82 cubic feet of interior cargo.

Lexus hybrid station wagon
Lexus CT200 - This is actually a compact wagon, sized much like the Audi A3. The CT200 is a hybrid that sips at a rate of 42 miles per gallon, whereas a comparable petrol Audi A3 gets mid-30s. Not too bad. But it's no more speedy than a Prius.

Volvo V50 - Volvo has really evolved over the years and their cars still last several generations. It's a good looking car that will get your clan moving 30 miles for every gallon on the highway. Incredible safety standards, traction control, optional spoiler, killer interior.Plus, you can get this in an all-wheel-drive version, too. Hella cool.

Audi A4 Station wagon
Audi A4 Avant - Available in a Quattro, a 4WD system so it makes that grade for hauling you up to the ski resort. Comparing to Griswold's green beast, I'd say the station wagon has evolved nicely. Ever driven an Audi? You should. And, as all the reports say, the interior is at the top.

VW Jetta Sportwagen - the down-to-earth version of them all. Get this with a TDi motor that burns clean, and you'll be grinning big time for each of the 40+ miles you go on every gallon. Behind the back seats you get 32.8 cubic feet of storage. Every 16-year-old girl in America thinks she wants a cute Jetta. Surprise her with the wagon . . .

This series, Choosing and Adventure Vehicle, is a whimsical, if not admiring, look at the four-wheeled contraptions any family has to choose from that helps get the clan from Point A to Point B. Always factual to the details of the vehicle, but also adorned with hyperbole and whimsy out of affection for the subject matter. See the other articles in this series:


J. Brandon
+5 / 0
# J. Brandon 2011-03-24 16:53
Thanks, Mark, for standing up for our heritage. I think the station wagon might be as American as the pickup truck and the blues.

My first roadtrips and backcountry adventures were in our family's 1963 Dodge 880 and 1966 Chevy Impala wagons.

These days, as I'm about the age my dad was when we had those cars, I'm eyeballing the new Mini Countryman.
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0 / 0
# Mark 2011-03-25 09:56
I don't think I'm standing up for the heritage as much as I'm just admitting the heritage.
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Nathan Woods
+3 / 0
# Nathan Woods 2011-03-28 17:50
I had a 1998 Volvo V70 then replaced it with a 2001 XC70. Wagon's rule! but they'll never replace my need for a full size 4x4 SUV
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0 / 0
# Mark 2011-03-29 08:04
Nathan, you summed it up perfectly.
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+4 / 0
# Becky 2011-03-29 16:42
We have a 2006 Ford Focus Wagon and are in LOVE with it! It already has 120,00 miles on it and it's been all over the country with a cargo box, mountain bikes, a canoe and the likes. It's a great road trip machine and we're bummed that Ford stopped making wagons. When this one is dead we hope to get another wagon. LOVE THEM!
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+2 / -1
# Mark 2011-04-09 14:52
That's awesome, Becky. I completely forgot about the Focus. Glad you're flogging it with adventure. :-)
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Robert Lefebvre
+4 / 0
# Robert Lefebvre 2011-05-16 13:43
I love wagons too. We had an 03 Focus, used and abused that thing. Somewhere I have a picture of it, rooftop basket with stuff piled 2 feet high. Loaded to the roof inside. Pulling a 4x8 trailer piled 5 feet high. Poor thing.

The Focus wagon was a high-water mark for compact wagons. More cargo room than most midsize SUV's these days.

Not available anymore. :sad:

I grew up with a succession of wagons. Bunch of Caprices and a Celebrity Eurosport. I never developed the wagon-aversion. Not sure why.

Currently we have a GM Minivan, because we needed the space and there are no more fullsize wagons. Now that the youngest is growing up (no more strollers, etc.), we might be able to downsize to a Jetta wagon.
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Donna Krambeck
0 / 0
# Donna Krambeck 2013-02-17 22:21
I have an '05 Magnum, my son has an '07 Magnum. I love mine so much I am trying to keep it forever. There is no other vehicle out there that I would even consider getting to replace my Magnum. None comes close to the storage and "low riding" appearance that I have with it. I do not want or need an SUV, nor do I want the high insurance that comes with one. Too bad Dodge stopped making them......
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