The Return of the Station Wagon
Somewhere toward the end of yesterday's column, I had an epiphany: With the introduction of the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon (and its V-Series counterpart), ye olde trend pendulum has officially passed the halfway mark on its way back to the station wagon.
For those who may not remember, in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the stereotypical suburban family's vehicle of choice was a monster station wagon that could seat up to nine in semi-comfort, thanks to fold-down seats in the cargo area. My mother, for example, carted us around in a nearly 18-foot-long circa-1970 Ford Country Squire, with full-on "woodie" treatment.
The family hauler morphed into the minivan '” occasionally woodied-out as well '” by the mid 1980s, then went the SUV route a decade or so later, culminating in vehicles like the Ford Excursion and Chevrolet Suburban of the late 1990s/early 2000s, which could also seat nine and ran about 18 feet in length but rarely benefited from any wood-like accents.
Of course, it wasn't that everybody stopped making station wagons, it's just that thisparticular body style fell out of favor with the U.S. public because it lost its "cool." The situation was then replayed in the minivan segment, which saw OEMs like Ford and General Motors eventually drop out in favor of SUVs, which more recently have begun losing their mojo to crossovers. Today, the more SUV-like crossovers already appear to have had their day in the sun, as vehicles like the Toyota Venza, Honda Crosstour, BMW X6 and Subaru Outback are on the rise.
In fact, the Outback is an interesting case. It actually started out as a Legacy station wagon, then was modified by Subaru just enough to be counted as a "truck" for CAFE purposes '” and just enough to retain the kind of rugged styling that would keep it in production while more wagon-like vehicles like the Audi Allroad and Volvo Cross Country came and went.
Meanwhile, driven primarily by the European market '” where a variety of circumstances prevented big SUVs from gaining much traction '” the station wagon proper was being kept alive with a sporting/luxury twist from OEMs like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. All of these companies have made a habit of giving over their wagons to their in-house performance divisions for significant power and handling upgrades.
Current vehicles in the Eurowagon niche include the Audi A4 Avant and A6 Avant, Volvo V50 and V70, Saab 9-3 SportCombi and 9-5 SportCombi, BMW 3 Series/5 Series Sports Wagons, and 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class station wagon.
Today, these general strands of station wagon history '” the rugged and the sporting '” are on the verge of being tied up once again here in the U.S. market, thanks to Cadillac. Because you can be sure if there's one General Motors station wagon, there will soon be more to come. And then it will be all "aprÃ¨s moi, le dÃ©luge" (hey, I didn't go to college for nothing).
A Chevrolet Malibu station wagon would be an excellent idea, building on the promise of the last-generation Malibu Maxx or perhaps reviving the classic Nomad name. Alternatively, the General could go a bit bigger and take advantage of the Holden Commodore Sport Wagon, which was formerly on track to join the Pontiac G8 line '” and we know GM is dying to rebadge a full-size Holden somehow or another. Of course, either way, GMC would have to get a more macho version, while Buick already has experience with an Excelle Station Wagon in China. For Ford, which offers both Mondeo and Focus wagons in Europe, revived wagon versions of the new U.S. Taurus and Focus would seem a natural fit. Even Chrysler could easily get into the mix by leveraging the Alfa Romeo 159 Sport Wagon.
Pretty soon, everyone could be back in the game. And why not? There's always going to be a need for a style of vehicle that can comfortably hold a family of five (or more). And in today's economic environment, the more efficient packaging of a car, with its potential for better gas mileage, just makes more sense than that of an SUV or a crossover. Station wagons can even be a more efficient choice for automakers, as wagon versions of current vehicles require less development costs than something like putting an all-new crossover body on an existing platform.
And who knows how far wood-paneling technology may have come by now.