Sports-car enthusiasts who've grown up to have a family -- including kids, a dog and all the requisite gear -- need not dismiss high-octane automotive dreams. There are a handful of wagons out there that are faster than your last Corvette.
In the U.S., the wagon genre isn't exactly huge, but it has constantly held between 3 percent and 4 percent of the new-car market, according to J.D. Power and Associates. "Those numbers are definitely pretty low, but they're steady," says Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power. The data excludes newfangled, car-based SUVs, sometimes called "crossovers," which might be considered wagons by some consumers. Given the trend toward these increasingly popular SUVs, the steady, albeit slow, sales of wagons is more remarkable, Libby says.
International research firm Global Insight shows greater wagon interest in Europe than in the U.S. -- it puts the total North American market-share for wagons slightly lower than J.D. Power does, at an average of 2 percent per year over the last five years, compared to 11 percent in Western Europe -- both relatively stable year to year.
High-performance wagons, such as those highlighted in this article, are a concept Europe has gotten especially comfortable with -- more so than the U.S. It's a heritage thing, says Wolfgang Hoffmann, director of product management at Audi. "While wagons were an important part of car culture that started in the U.S. in the '50s and '60s, we made performance wagons popular in Europe in the '80s -- a concept which didn't translate to the U.S. at the time." Hoffmann notes that at that point, the U.S. market began backing off wagons and moving toward minivans. "As that happened, our European wagons were becoming more high-performance and upscale," Hoffman says. "Europeans bought them, because they wanted something that fit their family life, but also accommodated their sporting interests."
Today, Audi remains committed to wagons -- and not just in Europe, but in the U.S. "Even though the wagon market is slower in the U.S. -- not because of minivans anymore, but now due to SUVs and crossovers -- there are still some people out there who want a European-style, high-performance wagon; they don’t want an SUV or anything like it," Hoffmann says.
Audi makes three wagons for the U.S., all spinoffs of sedans: the midsize A6 Avant, the smaller A4 Avant and its high-performance twin, the S4 Avant, featured on our list. "It doesn't have the most space out there, but it's designed for maximum space utilization and versatility, in a variety of situations," Hoffmann says of the S4 Avant. "It performs and handles well, and is as stylish as any of our cars. You can go to the grocery store or the opera in it."
Audi's wagons sell much better in Europe. In the last several years, the A4 Avant ("Avant" is Audi's term for wagon) has accounted for 10 percent of Audi's popular A4 line in the U.S., while in Germany, A4 Avant sales have made up a whopping 70 percent of total A4 sales, vastly outselling sedan and convertible variants. Hoffmann attributes this number to good old market momentum: Since its '80s wagon invasion in Europe, with successful models like the 100 Avant, people have kept on buying because the company built up loyalty to the point where many European consumers now hold the wagon in higher esteem than the sedan. "They view the A4 Avant's practicality as an added bonus. There's no stigma," Hoffmann says.
BMW is also in on the U.S. wagon market -- with its compact 3 Series Wagon, which competes directly with the Audi A4 Avant, and its larger 5 Series Wagon, an updated version of which is scheduled to launch in May. The soon-to-launch 2008 535xi Sports Wagon features BMW's new twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine first seen in the 3 Series. This 300-hp turbocharged engine is a significant upgrade from the 255-hp engine in the outgoing 2007 530xi Sports Wagon.
Like with Audi, BMW's attention to wagons is significant, considering the company simply doesn't sell a lot of them. According to BMW, in 2005 the automaker sold about 2,350 5 Series Wagons out of about 52,700 total 5 Series cars in the U.S.; and in 2006, it sold 2,200 wagons out of around 56,700 total 5 Series cars. That's less than 5 percent per year. Many more wagons were bought in Europe during the same time period: 36 percent 5 Series Wagon versus 64 percent sedan. "Europe simply has a different cultural orientation toward wagons," says BMW spokesperson Bill Scully. "Yes, SUVs have come on strong there, too, but people there are definitely showing that high-performance wagons fit well into their daily lives."
As the grandest possible thank-you to that loyal market, BMW sells a wagon of its 500-hp M5 supercar, called the M5 Touring, in Europe. Why isn't that one in the U.S.? Scully says that because of much slower wagon sales in the U.S. than in Europe, "we've chosen to pare down and offer fewer models, but well-balanced ones." He says that the 535xi is an ideal blend of performance and utility and "not as niche-oriented as the M5 Touring." As far as slower U.S. wagon sales, Scully reports that a lot of people have knowingly defected from the wagon genre into SUVs (here he cites the company's small and medium-size X3 and X5, the latter being especially successful in the U.S.).
Fellow German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz dropped its entry-level C-Class Wagon in 2004, because "demand for wagons, for all manufacturers including Mercedes, has declined as SUVs have grown," says a company spokesperson. So the company's wagon focus is on the high end, with two choices, both in the midsize E-Class line: the E350 4Matic and the E63 AMG. The latter, with its AMG-built, 507-hp V8 engine, is one of the fastest cars, never mind wagons, on the road anywhere. "The E63 AMG Wagon is not only the quickest wagon in America, but also the stealthiest supercar in the world," says Bernie Glaser, general manager of product management, Mercedes-Benz USA. "With a 0-60 mph time of just 4.3 seconds, it shatters all perceptions of what a wagon can do."
And with those words fresh in your head, securely fasten your tailgate and get ready for some serious hauling.