Lifestyle

Best Wagons 2006


Slide Show >>

The "station" wagon is dead. Long live the just-plain wagon, sport wagon, crossover wagon, and sport tourer.

No doubt, vehicle categories are edging ever toward the complexity of even the pickiest urban coffee order. Dealers may very well soon hear: "I'll have a full-sized, flex-fuel, hybrid-drive, all-wheel sport tourer, please." But even as the jargon expands, a wagon by any other name is still a wagon: handy with kids and groceries, often easier to drive and more fuel-efficient than an SUV, and arguably sexier than a minivan.

More than anything, the proliferation of nomenclature for vehicles that would have once been simply called station wagons has made it nearly impossible to get an accurate read of the sales landscape. Many wagons are treated as versions of their sedan counterparts, rather than as separate vehicles. And newer, wagon-like crossovers are often counted with truck-based SUVs, making it hard to pinpoint a straightforward market segment.

But, in the wake of midsize SUVs' declining fortunes (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/06, "Detroit's Midsize SUV Problem"), a host of wagons, 39 of which BusinessWeek.com looked at, have popped up on American shores to provide practical relief. This number of available models helps confirm the renewed viability of the body style, whatever final name it may bear on the dealer's lot.

CHALLENGING SUVs. The benefits of the wagons are mostly obvious. Because the majority rest on the same platform as regular sedans, like Audi's A6 Avant and Volvo's V70, fuel efficiency is often much better than that of comparable SUVs—both of the biggest wagons from Audi and Volvo are about 20% less thirsty than their SUV counterparts. What's more, in many cases, cargo room stacks up reasonably with much larger truck-based vehicles, including SUVs.

For example, according to information published on the Ford (F) Web site, a Focus wagon has nearly as much usable cargo space as a much larger, more expensive Explorer, 35.2 cubic feet vs. 43.9 in the back. (And with an additional row of seating the Explorer's cargo area drops below the Focus', though it can accommodate two more passengers.) The Focus costs $17,305 and earns fuel economy between 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. The Explorer, meanwhile, base-prices at $27,175 and earns fuel economy between 15 mpg and 21 mpg.

Downsides include increased weight, which can affect overall handling on some models—though many aficionados insist wagons handle better than their sedan versions—and, of course, lingering dowdy stereotypes.

With size restraints and much higher fuel costs, Europeans became fond of wagons a long time ago. That's why a majority of the models available in the States today are of European provenance from the likes of Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and BMW. In fact, of the wagon variants BusinessWeek.com looked at, 18 were made by European manufacturers and 12 by Japanese companies.

DETROIT'S NEW DARLING? One immediately apparent legacy of this overseas heritage is the impressive performance of many high-end wagons. There's the stratospherically priced Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG, which has a base price more than $80,000 and zips from zero to 60 with Ferrari quickness, under 5 seconds, although one may question the point of a superfast family car. More affordably priced, though by no means cheap, models from Volvo, Audi, and BMW can also be equipped to run impressively fast.

All-wheel drive is even more common. Although some manufacturers include off-road and bad-weather prowess to sweeten a package possibly being compared to an SUV, some manufacturers like Audi and Subaru have built their reputations abroad on rugged, all-wheel-drive wagons.

The variety of American-made wagons was seriously compromised in the mid-1980s and early 1990s as minivans and later SUVs began cutting into market share. But now even domestic manufacturers have returned to the form with gusto. DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) high-performance, muscle-influenced Dodge Magnum and General Motors' (GM) one-of-a-kind Chevrolet HHR are head-turning re-entries into the U.S. wagon space.

BusinessWeek.com took a look at the wagons currently being sold on the American market. Click here for the slide show.


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