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Return of the Wagon...?

We all have our favorite memories from childhood, and one of mine was piling into the back of the family station wagon, along with a passel of friends, to head to the Jersey Shore for my eighth birthday. Growing up as part of the "Leave it to Beaver" generation, the wagon was as essential a part of life as Tang, TV and my mother's inevitably over-cooked pot roast.

By the time we Boomers began to raise families of our own, the wagon had largely vanished, replaced first by the minivan and then the seemingly ubiquitous SUV. Oh, there were the odd few "two-box" models left on the market, usually a European offering, and maybe the occasional Asian import, but for all practical purposes, the wagon was dead.

Here, in the U.S., anyway. In other parts of the world, Europe in particular, it has actually gained strength over the years, leaving global planners – and a few of us diehard wagon fans – scratching our heads and wondering if this most utilitarian of automotive designs might ever make a comeback here.

There've been a few false starts, promising new entries like the Dodge Magnum failing to gain traction. But if this year's New York International Auto Show is any indication, a new era of the American station wagon may finally be upon us. Maybe.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials will bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

The annual event at the Big Apple's Jacob Javits Center has brought out a surprising array of wagon offerings – though don't go looking for that old Vista Cruiser. The closest you'll likely come to that classic shape is the Mercedes-Benz E350, which is what some Europeans prefer to call an "estate," and indeed, this no-excuses design has remained popular with the old money crowd on the East Coast.

Detroit's approach is anything but traditional, with the CTS-V Wagon. The high-performance version of the Cadillac 2-box that debuted earlier in the 2010 model-year, it should convince any skeptic that the word "stodgy" isn't a synonym for station wagon. Sure, you have the wagon-like cargo compartment, but the overall look is sleek and sexy and arguably a better execution of Caddy's Art & Science design language than the CTS sedan itself.

2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Estate

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon

Among the other wagons at the 2010 NYIAS, Kia's new offering underscores the problem manufacturers face as they try to revive this moribund market segment. The Korean maker dubbed its new model the Forte 5-door, marketing chief Michael Sprague admitted, because "There are some (negative) connotations in calling something a wagon."

Will this rose by another name sell so sweet? That's what Kia is waiting to see, though the maker's design chief, Peter Schreyer is convinced the time has finally come.

"Wagons have a great future in the U.S.," the German stylist insisted, after the Kia news conference, "because people are going to downsize from SUVs, and if you still need a lot of space, a wagon is a good choice."

That's basically the same strategy behind Acura's decision to launch a 2-box version of the entry-luxury TSX, though here a rose is a rose and called a TSX wagon.

2011 Kia Forte 5-Door

2011 Acura TSX Wagon

Not everyone is so confident. General Motors' outgoing Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, a long-time wagon fan and a backer of the CTS version, glumly admits, "We haven't sold many" since it was launched, last year, "and I'm not sure we will." For all the talk about a wagon comeback, in the U.S., he says, it never seems to materialize.

The much-heralded Dodge Magnum hit a sales peak of just 74,000, notes Stephanie Brinley, of AutoPacific, Inc., and then steadily declined until the automaker dropped the model. The Volvo V70 couldn't do better than 7,400 units, in 2005, and was 60% off that tepid pace by 2009 when the Swedish maker decided to phase the wagon out.

There is a notable success story in the wagon world: the Subaru Legacy Outback.
That's why other makers, such as Toyota, have abandoned the wagon shape in favor of SUVs and, more recently, crossovers. Even Acura's sibling brand, Honda, gave up trying to make a go of the Accord wagon, which it once sustained by shipping from its U.S. plants to more eager overseas markets.

But proponents believe that several things could be working in the wagon's favor. There's that downsizing that Kia's Schreyer points to, as well as the aging of the Boomers. The newest generation of buyers don't carry with them the same mental baggage, so to speak, but see wagons as a good way to haul their real bags. Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel is particularly bullish about the opportunities in the luxury end of the spectrum, quoting data showing sales of high-line wagons could grow by 40% between 2010 and 2014.

And AutoPacific's Brinley points out there is a "notable success" story in the wagon world, the Subaru Legacy Outback, where "the wagon handily outsells the sedan" – by 55,300 to 31,000 in 2009.

Okay, that's not the same as dominating the market like wagons did when my dad was shopping for our next family cruiser. Back then, there was a 2-box version of just about every product on the market, and station wagon sales were measured in the millions.

Nonetheless, "we see growing potential," asserts Honda's Mendel, so don't be surprised to see even more makers enter the segment in the coming years, whether they call them wagons, 5-doors or something else entirely.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials will bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think one problem is that, despite all the talking-up of wagons, especially amongst enthusiast circles, the reality is that very few of even they actually buy any. Most of my car enthusiast friends fall into the 'wagons are cool' camp, yet I can count the numbers they actually own on one hand, and that even includes my own 2001 325 Touring (with 3 pedals, thankyouverymuch). My problem now is how I'm going to get another MT wagon, this time with a 4cyl turbodiesel (hello, BMW? where is my 323dT?)

      Seems to me brand/model loyalty drives wagon sales first, which explains 30+ years of E-Class and Subaru, and what appears to be brisk Jetta wagon sales, although the Volvo case falls apart here.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The Volvo problem is that their cars aren't good enough to justify the enormous Scandinavian price premium. Dynamically, it's a joyless ride. Utility is offset by poor reliability. Crap ergonomics only make the thing worse.

        For Volvo money, you can do far better. For Volvo quality, you can spend far less.

        Not a good place to be in.

        I'm so glad not to own a Volvo anymore.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Personally, I think "Sportback" might get a better response that "Wagon" "5-Door" or "Estate"
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's nice to see the return of "traditional' wagons (regardless of what they may actually be called - crossover, sportback, etc.) but I think as big or bigger news could be the return of coupes - Camaro, CTS, Challenger, etc.
      • 5 Years Ago
      You listening Ford??? Focus Wagon for the US PLEASE!?!?!?!?..... I think it the coolest car I have seen in a long while (in pictures)..........
      • 5 Years Ago
      I too had a '69 Country Squire. We loved it. If you think wagons won't sell, just look at all the Subarus running around all of the western US. People are crazy about their little Subarus! They are 4WD but built like a car. Perfect compromise. They have a hatch in the back much like a hatchback, which are also very popular. I just can't understand why Ford doesn't offer a Focus wagon and hatchback. There are a huge amount of people who don't care much for sedans.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Another benefit to wagons: you can refer to them as "shaggin' wagons"
        • 5 Years Ago
        My son took the family's old 96 Roadmonster 3-3-2 wagon to college. He immediate observation: "It's an epic babe magnet." The perfect party wagon and load-hauler, complete with LT-1 V-8.

        GM, don't be putzes, bring back the Roadmaster wagon.

      • 5 Years Ago
      I've had a lot of miles in wagons, and they're very useful for families hauling stuff. The only real downside is the lack of secure rear storage that you have with a trunk.

      Still, it's good that we're finally getting back the option for wagons, especially with split-folding rear seats and hidden 3rd-row jump seats - ultimate flexibility to carry large objects with a flat load floor, or seat 7 with a 2-3-2 configuration.

      If wagon torchbearer Subaru were to offer rear jump seats in their Outback and Legacy, I have to imagine they'd do very well.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Speaking of magnums----- (I love wagons, bought my first one to haul babies in 50 years ago)---- magnum had design faults--roof drooped too much in the rear & hatch dumped water into the floor when opened. also a little too much old tech.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's to bad Chrysler didn't stick it out with the Magnum. In the RT or SRT form it was really hot. In fact I still think it's hottest looking of the bunch
      • 5 Years Ago
      I've always loved the wagons. I guess the earliest crush was a Nomad I seen as a kid, I just remember thinking "that looks so coooooool!" I was about 8 ok haha. But ever since then they held a place in my heart. Sadly most automakers have never tried to get rid of that old stigma of boring, prudish mom/pop, hippy transporting mobils. Cadillac atleast is giving it a go with the sport wagon and with its V series treatment of it.

      To me call any of the Luxury car wagons "Estates" and the normal wagons just that wagons. Avoid the station wagon denotation since I believe in peoples heads when station is mentioned they picture these HUGE boring land yatchs. Well in any case I hope to in a few years track down a V wagon and color myself happy.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I dig wagons, but I'm highly out numbered by my friends (I'm 23) I hope they make the Buick Regal GS wagon, that would be sweet!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Big, RWD wagons were common when I was a kid but only our parents actually liked them. Us kids were usually cracking jokes about people who owned them, and when it was our chance to drive the family car, most resisted driving the wagon if they could. It had an "un-cool" stigma even back then. Kind of like mini-vans nowadays. Both are the "common-sense" vehicle for a family for sure but there's always been a reluctance for people to embrace them as a "want-to-drive" vehicle.
      Today, while I can see there's "some" degree of common-sense attached to owning a wagon, I prefer an SUV. My Aviator, while not able to accommodate a 4'x 8' sheet of plywood between the wheel wells, DOES hold one slightly angled. And the load-carrying capacity easily allows for trips to the local Home Depot, quarry, or nursery. Thanks to it's stylish good looks, I can take it out for a night on the town, and thanks to it's powerful V8 (pulled right out of the Mustang Mach 1), and wonderfully designed stability control system, it's actually fun to drive, and can be said to actually handle fairly well. Oh yeah, and the extremely well designed AWD system is EXCELLENT in slippery weather (the thing was actually better in snow than my Wrangler was).
      Sorry, the wagon has no place in my driveway, there are simply too many BETTER choices out there these days. Back in the 60's and even the 70's, station wagons were a reasonable compromise for many but that was only because you had so few choices if you needed or wanted a vehicle with some utility. If you wanted/needed more cargo carrying capability than the large sedan in the driveway, you only had a van or pick-up truck as choices, and those two were seriously crude vehicles back then. Suitable only for real work duty.
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