Last week our esteemed colleague showed up with his new-to-him 1994 Chevy Caprice Classic Wagon. And that got us wondering: What ever happened to the station wagon in America? Crossovers are dominating the market, with every firm from Ford to Audi (announced last week) pumping out a CUV or two for those who “need” more cargo “room” but think SUVs are too big and expensive. But perhaps there’s an alternative again. Perhaps the station wagon is back.
Some never left. Subaru’s claim-to-fame Outback is still selling in droves, though it’s tall enough these days to be classified a crossover, causing Paul Hogan to hang his head in shame. And though the rest of the world sees as many wagons as every other body type, this tradition died out in America sometime in the late ‘90s.
It’s rather startling, because when I was growing up, almost every new car had an estate version. My father worked as a computer service tech, and his company car was a 1991 Ford Taurus wagon, a perfect cargo solution for his equipment or our family’s luggage on vacations.
The body variation has been around almost as long the car itself. The name “Station Wagon” is a euphemism for “Depot Hack,” as they were originally called for their early service as hackney carriages around train depots.
Popularity exploded in the 1950s with 2-door shooting brakes like the Plymouth Savoy, the mundanely named Mercury Commuter, and, perhaps most notably, the iconic Chevy Bel Air Nomad. But in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, the station wagon received a double-team smackdown from the SUV and the minivan. The 1996 Caprice/Roadmaster whale was the last full-sized wagon to leave the factory…
Until 2004, when Chrysler took the chassis for their new 300 and used them for something strange. They built the Dodge Magnum. Unlike other station wagons, the Magnum didn’t have a sedan version of the same name. Dodge had used the name before, but when you learn that two of the four of the Magnum’s engine options were Hemi V-8s, you have to wonder if they just named it after Dirty Harry’s sidearm. The 2005 Magnum SRT-8 (with a 6.1 liter Hemi) had a 0-60 time of 5 seconds flat, due to its 425 hp and 420 lb ft of torque. It could run a 13.4 second quarter mile. There was even a police version.
You may have noticed I’m referring to the Mag Wag in the past tense. In 2007, ears-deep in the recession, Chrysler decided to pull the plug on the Magnum. It just wasn’t selling, and as much as purists like me would like to blame that on Dodge’s characteristic and annoying lack of a manual transmission, it probably had more to do with the Magnum’s elephant-like thirst, and the wagon’s old nemesis, the SUV, this time in the form of a herd of crossovers.
But the Magnum started something. Someone asked then GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz in 2009 if Cadillac had any plans for a wagon version of their spectacular, 556 hp CTS-V sedan. He said, “…should sufficient demand materialize, there is no reason why we couldn’t do a V-Series wagon…” Normally that’s the kind of executive talk that births hundreds of rumors and exactly zero cars. But there Cadillac were at the 2010 New York International Auto Show, proudly displaying their gorgeous, laser-cut CTS-V Sport Wagon. Like the coupe (which debuted simultaneously), the Sport Wagon shares the sedan’s supercharged 6.2 liter V8, a power plant originally sourced from a Corvette, laying down 556 horsepower and 551 lb ft of torque. Stop reading and sit down. Now continue. The 0-60 time is 4.3 seconds, and it has a top speed of right around 190. Yes, that’s faster than many Porsches – supercar performance in a wagon.
To make matters better, our favorite quick-draw Texas tuner Hennessey has just released their own take on the CTS-V Sport Wagon, the V700. And as you were hoping, that 700 is a nice round figure to represent the car’s 707 horsepower. Hennessey did some fiddling with the supercharger and lopped .5 seconds off the stock 0-60 time. Just this week the grocery getter bested a Nissan GTR in a drag race.
So Chrysler tried and failed, and may try again, as their new Italian ownership can look out their rustic, European windows and see a Chrysler 300 wagon rolling down the street any day of the week. GM’s effort has gained a cult following and the unique title of being awesome enough to pique Hennessey’s curiosity. What about Detroit’s third guy-wire? Doesn’t the Blue Oval have anything to offer today’s roving service techs?
In a word, no. Their Volvo-framed Freestyle shared the Magnum’s fate, and even though in 2008 Ford renamed it the Taurus X and gave it the Taurus’ triple blade front clip, everyone knew it was still an unreliable crossover, and sales tumbled. It was discontinued in 2009. Taurus SHO wagon Photoshop renders abound on the anything-goes fields of the internet, but in order to compete with Cadillac, Lincoln, whose comparable sedans are f/awd, would have to reengineer the Taurus/MKS platform.
But the FF layout hasn’t stopped Honda, who have happily begun to market their Acura TSX Sport Wagon in America, perhaps aiming for the crowd who still like a wagon but have no interest in trying to outrun sound itself in the Cadillac. The TSX is loaded with a 2.4 liter VTEC straight four which pulls off a decent 30 mpg on the highway. The 0-60 time is a blue-haired 8.8 seconds, and it’s been shackled with an unfortunate, paddle-flapping “SportShift” automatic.
That’s all a little depressing, yes, but only in some respects. It is, after all, a sweet wagon. Its big brother, the Accord has an international wagon version whose lower price and lack of a silly, veggie-chopper grille we would love to see on our shores. (Instead we’re spoon-fed the visually confusing and much maligned Accord Crosstour crossover.) So an Acura wagon is a step in the right direction for total wagon sales in America.
But in some ways, it may not be a good thing for Johnny Q. Wagonlover. Even though the TSX Sport Wagon starts at a paltry $30k, it’s still a luxury car. The CTS-V starts at around $63k (the Hennessey is $99k-$103k, because I knew you were wondering). And one can’t help but wonder if the Magnum would have survived better in America as the Chrysler 300 Wagon, priced currently in Europe at €42k, which translates to about 60 grand here in the colonies.
The station wagon has become a luxury item. How this has occurred is a study for a sociologist, but I speculate that it has to do with avoiding the SUV stereotypes- the overcompensating businessman who will never take the rig off-road, the chrome-plated gangster/athlete/b-list actor who rattles neighborhood windows with aftermarket subwoofers, and the cautious, lunch-packing soccer mom who hogs up the passing lane. Of course, most SUV owners don’t fit into any of these cookie cutters, but the American auto market likes to think they do.
However much they cost, however much their leather seats induce back sweat on long trips, it’s good to see wagons again on American roads. They’re an American tradition worth preserving. I just hope the market agrees. Long live the wagon.
What do you think? Is the wagon back for good?