station wagons have had to endure near extinction due to the buying whims of the general public over the past 20 years. The one-two punch of minivans in the 1980s and sport-utility vehicles in the 1990’s almost wiped wagons out of the market entirely, decimating the domestic crop and seeing even Toyota and Honda remove their wagons from North American showrooms. However, offerings from Subaru and a number of European sport wagons continued to trickle onto the market. When minivans themselves faced extinction at the hands of crossover suv’s in the mid-2000s, many buyers realized that these vehicles represented an alternative to the fuel guzzling of SUV’s and the mind-numbing driving experience of minivans, prompting a gradual resurgence in their popularity.
A delicate balance exists between these three different classes of family transportation. While minivans may offer superior interior volume and crossovers usually provide the option of at least vestigial off-road utility, station wagons triumph over both with their excellent road manners, comfortable ride and sedan-like fuel mileage. With modern advancements in chassis design and drivetrain placement, wagon interiors are often much larger on the inside than their exterior dimensions might suggest, and all-wheel drive systems have become common options, helping to level the playing field.
Recent station wagons don’t have a lot in common with their full-size cousins from the past. While wagons may have once had a stodgy image, a compromise between passenger capacity and performance, the current crop of people movers are much sportier, trading in their wood paneling for sleek, aerodynamic styling and in some cases even manual transmissions. They are also much safer, with multiple air bags, electronic driver’s aids and features such as anti-lock brakes and built-in child seats. Fuel economy is excellent, thanks to the use of lightweight materials and engine technologies that can get more horsepower out of smaller displacement blocks.
There are a number of distinctive flavors of wagon available on the market today. Compact wagons which resemble extended hatchbacks are a popular option from brands such as Toyota, Scion and Honda, while European manufacturers like Audi and BMW tend to base their vehicles on their sport sedans, giving their wagons a performance-oriented feel. Subaru and Volvo, who never stopped believing in the potential of their wagons have been refining their offerings for generations, and some domestic manufacturers have gone back to their muscle-era roots to once again produce vehicles which combine serious interior room with the rumble of a V8 under the hood.
The three wagons in this article represent a cross-section of some of the best options out there on the used market in terms of capacity, performance and quality.