At death's door
The Demise of the Station Wagon
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To impassioned motorheads, the mindset behind the impending death of the wagon makes about zero sense. Though the general public is still oddly reminded of the behemoths of old that seemed to be about 60 feet long, it’s been some time since the last truly horrendous wagon roamed the earth — the 1996 Buick Roadmaster. Gone are the days when piloting a wagon meant you had to be 45 years old, having given up hope on any semblance of driving desire, and taken up the distressing fact that turning the steering wheel 180 degrees was required just to change lanes. But it wasn’t always as ignominious as that. The wagon used to be a status symbol, at one point commanding higher prices than sedans. And the faux wood paneling that showed up on 1960s and ’70s wagons that we all now ridicule grew out of the original wood-bodied station wagons in the 1930s and ’40s. “Woodies”, as they were called, were much the darling of the beach crowd and harken back to a time when having one meant freedom and endless summer days in the sun, surf and sand.
Gone are the days when piloting a wagon meant you had to be 45 years old, having given up hope on any semblance of driving desire, and taken up the distressing fact that turning the steering wheel 180 degrees was required just to change lanes.
Over the span of just a few decades, the station wagon morphed from a status symbol into the vehicular equivalent of a dullard, to be relegated to men who were far less focused on appearances and far more on languishing in the mediocrity of the interminable family vacation. Stations wagons like the Ford Country Squire in the ’60s and ’70s, though popular, surely didn’t help their cause — with metal bodies and “wood applique” (a.k.a. stickers) — they looked more like weakly forested hearses than regal cars worthy of desire. But the automotive gravediggers really started to hone their shovel tips in the 1980s when Chrysler brought the testosterone-robbing minivan into the fold. If the American public needed something practical to haul the entire family, the station wagon would have to bow to the larger and “fresher” minivan. Sales took flight while the station wagon took a seat on the bench without even getting back into warmup attire in hopes of getting back in the game.
In the 1990s, carmakers were getting a full hot blast of wind from the continuing drop in wagon sales but still built the likes of the Chevy Impala wagon, the Toyota Camry wagon and the terrible three-door imp, the Geo Storm station wagon. But it wasn’t all bad, and wagons like the early ’90s BMW 5-Series, the Volvo 740 and even the Subaru Legacy wagon stood as the more svelte and performance-oriented wagons that went on to influence the current dying breed sold in America.
Unfortunately, as the girth of the American waistline grew, so did the size of its family cars. Minivans and SUVs began to dominate the landscape, and soon every major carmaker was selling SUVs, from to Hummers to Highlanders, X5s to XTerras. Fewer wagons were being made and even fewer sold. Station wagons that got good fuel economy and even drove with a modicum of pleasure began to die off one by one — Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu. And even as the increase in gas prices slapped us silly, rather than go back to the practical wagon, we opted for a new breed: crossovers, a type of car that gave us better mileage than the big SUVs while simultaneously providing a higher ride than most cars with even less room than most wagons. We simply refused to go back, even though wagons were better than ever. They had better gas mileage, higher safety standards, better driving dynamics due to the lower center of gravity and in many cases, more cargo and passenger room.
Unfortunately, as the girth of the American waistline grew, so did the size of its family cars.
Moreover, the newer, albeit late-comer, wagons like the beautiful Saab 9-3 SportCombi, the Cadillac CTS Sports Wagon and the Acura TSX wagon boasted some of the best designs around, making their four-door siblings look a bit boring, to be honest. Alas, it wouldn’t be enough, and Americans had to have their way. Even Volvo, with their formerly sleek V70 (now the somewhat bloated XC70, because we needed it to be a crossover, not a wagon), decided to say goodbye to their full-sized wagon. It’s the kind of move that makes us shed a tear. Thankfully, they’ll come back with a new wagon next year, and they’ll actually use the name “Sports Wagon”. Audi ditched their stunning A4 and A6 Avants and traded them for the somewhat vanilla Q5 crossover and pseudo-wagon, the new allroad Quattro. BMW killed off their wonderful 5-Series wagon for the offensively bulbous 5-Series GT but thankfully is holding on to their 3-Series wagon, while introducing its tumored brother, the 3-Series GT.
This is all part in parcel of why we’ll never get stunning wagons like the Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake or the Mazda6 wagon. It also explains why Americans would rather wear jean shorts and white Reeboks behind the wheel instead of khakis and driving loafers. None of it makes any sense, does it? Sure, automakers will still desperately try to hold on to the station wagon, but it’ll be futile — you’ll see. As we head into 2014, let’s remember that all of us had some part in this. We wanted more “something” and ended up with much less.