When many people think of a station wagon, visions of wood paneling begin dancing in their heads. This is because wood -- or wood grain plastic -- paneling was a popular exterior accent for wagons well through the 1980s, a design trait inspired by the wood-built architecture of the original 1930s woodies.
With the introduction of minivans, and later SUVs, the iconic image and popularity of the family wagon has declined. However, the combination of cargo room, seating capacity, relative low cost and small-car maneuverability make wagons a solid option for many modern-day families. However, long gone are the nostalgic days of those wood-grain road boats of yesteryear - today's wagons come with classy features, high-tech gizmos and near-luxury to luxury comfort.
Narrowing Your Options
A couple dozen vehicles compete for the company of you and your family for the 2009 model year. Most are modified versions of a sedan body style, though a handful boast a unique design that was built from the ground up. Loosely speaking, the lineup can be categorized into two size categories - compact and full-size. Compact vehicles can be described as the economy options of the bunch, and are a great choice for those who want the handling of a small car and most of the roominess of an SUV.
Despite their diminutive size, compact wagons often come close to matching smaller SUVs in cargo area when the rear seats are folded flat. For a little more comfort, class and passenger space, full-size wagons are likely a better option. The largest of the segment offer third-row seating for up to seven passengers.
As a family vehicle, safety is likely an important factor for wagon shoppers. While most wagons deliver impeccable safety reviews, a comparison of crash test scores from both the IIHS and NHTSA may help sway your decision. A quick look at standard safety features may also shed light on a standout feature you can't live without.
Other factors worth considering when buying a 2009 wagon include engine performance, fuel efficiency, level of comfort and operating costs. Choosing a wagon over an SUV will likely save you some money on car insurance, but keep in mind that the savings won't be as severe with a luxury model.
2009 Affordable Compact Wagons
If you're looking for a wagon that is small in size and price, then this is the segment for you. The Suzuki SX4 Crossover delivers the most affordable price tag, with a base MSRP of $15,939. For that wallet-friendly price, drivers get a variety of features, including all-wheel drive - a feature completely lacking on most other compact models. Safety features are also stellar, with traction control, antiskid system, antilock brakes and 6 airbags all coming standard.
Where the SX4 falls short is handling and fuel economy. For a boost in both, check out the Euro-styled MINI Cooper Clubman. A larger version of the popular MINI Cooper, the Clubman offers plenty of power and acceleration, especially on the upper-tier turbocharged models. Fuel efficiency is best-in-class, earning as much as 28 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
For those who want a more retro style in their future wagon, the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR are both great options. Combining form and function, both models serve as a good compromise between the compactness of the SX4 and the performance and higher price of the Clubman.
Another sporty option is the Subaru Impreza Wagon. Handling, acceleration all-wheel drive and a lower price tag may make it a good alternative to the Clubman. The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen (pictured) - offering similar engine power and an extra dose of luxury features - is another solid contender for those looking to add a little class to their compact wagon.
2009 Affordable Full-Size Wagons
Though a few full-size wagons match the affordability of compact wagons, most models hover around the $30,000 mark. Outliers of the bunch include the Kia Rondo and Mazda MAZDA5, which both start around $17,000. Styled much like a small minivan, the MAZDA5 delivers a unique design that does a great job of combining expansive cargo room with the zoom-zoom of a Mazda sedan. The Kia Rondo delivers perhaps the most value for the money, offering reasonable pep, quality interior components, stellar warranty and room for up to seven passengers.
Straddled between the low-priced full-size wagons and near-luxury models is the Subaru Outback. A base MSRP delivers Subaru's famous all-wheel drive. Where the MAZDA5 provides a smaller alternative to a minivan, the Outback drives and feels much like a compact SUV. Though not as quick as other wagons, the Outback earns bonus points for high crash test scores. The NHTSA handed out perfect 5-star ratings for both front and side impact categories.
Matching the Subaru Outback in safety is the Ford Taurus X. Throw in the added benefits of a standard 3.5-liter V6 engine and a variety of convenience features, and the Ford offers a well-rounded drive. For a flashier design and a little extra luxury, check out the Volkswagen Passat Wagon and the Volvo V50 (pictured). Both models deliver a modern design and feature a laundry-list of available features, including GPS, climate control, cruise control, sunroof, heated mirrors and power everything.
2009 Luxury Wagons
All 2009 luxury wagons are full-size European models. Base MSRP starts in the low $30s and eventually breaches the $80,000 mark. Volvo delivers two of the most affordable options - the Volvo V70 and XC70. Trademark Volvo safety combines with smooth handling and practicality to offer a good mix of comfort and class. Both offer similar cargo space and comfortably seat four, but the XC70 delivers a bit more luxury and a sleeker design.
For those who want a sportier drive, the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series wagon are likely better options. The Audi A4 boasts a 211-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, while the 3-Series Wagon teems with a 230-horsepower 3.0-liter I6. The Audi wagon comes with all-wheel drive on all models, and both boat impeccable safety scores and svelte styling. For more room, but similar accolades, step up to the larger BMW 5 Series wagon or Audi A6 wagon.
If luxury and comfort are more important than horsepower, then we recommend a test drive in the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon. As the most expensive wagon in the 2009 lineup ($88,500 for all the bells and whistles), the E-Class wagon comes chock full of lavish features and next-generation tech gizmos. Standard amenities include leather seats, auto power liftgate, power seats, wood trim and stability control.
Rounding out the 2009 luxury wagon lineup is the Saab 9-5 SportCombi (pictured) The 9-5 a good compromise between the power and performance of a BMW or Audi and the opulence and price of a Mercedes-Benz. However, it comes with a higher price tag than the similarly sized BMW and Audi wagons. So unless you're taken with the style of the Saab, one of the German autos may ultimately be a better buy.