Whatever Happened to the Station Wagon?
If you’re old enough to remember the Brady Bunch, even when the show was in re-runs on network TV, you probably spent at least some time riding in the back of a station wagon, like the fictional family. The station wagon from my childhood wore a Ford badge and faux wood paneling, making it resemble a log with wheels, and I thought it was pretty cool. My dad had a different opinion.
Today, you really don’t see many wagons on the road here in the United States. That’s not the case in Europe and many other markets, but here they’ve largely disappeared. Having owned a Volvo V70 AWD, I can tell you that a wagon can be a delightful thing to drive. But why is it Americans have pretty much shunned them?
Not Your Mother’s Vehicle
At the moment, Progressive Insurance has been running a series of commercials where Millennials are turning into their frumpy parents. With the frequency these are run, they seem to be a marketing success. There’s a resonating message that nobody wants to be like the people who raised them. You can argue if that’s good or bad, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a powerful force in our society.
To fight being like your parents, you might go out of your way to do things they never did. Even people who “aren’t into cars” attach some of their persona to their ride. I’m sure this was the case with horses before cars were invented, and kids do this with bicycles, so it’s a human nature kind of thing.
Research shows that women overwhelming drive the influence over what cars are purchased for families. If their main fear is becoming like their mother, and their mother drove a station wagon, they’ll adamantly stay away from anything even somewhat like that.
Try telling these shoppers that modern wagons are nothing like the land yachts their mother wrangled on the way to soccer practice and you might as well be yelling at the Rocky Mountains to move out of the way. People feel passionately about what car they drive and how it reflects on them.
In the 1990s, Americans suddenly were convinced they needed truck-based SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Chevy Blazer. These burly machines with a solid rear axle and leaf springs usually never touched a dirt road. Instead, they were used to haul kids to soccer practice and stash the trappings of a successful Costco run.
Then, in 2001 Consumer Reports came out with a scathing review of the Mitsubishi Montero, stating it was too prone to rolling over. Suddenly, Americans realized other truck-based SUVs carried the same risk, even though owner’s manuals and printed warnings on the flip side of the sun visors had displayed such a warning for well over a decade.
Crossovers rocketed in popularity, because they promised the utility of an SUV and the ride quality of a car. Vehicles like the Toyota Highlander instantly became choice rides for families. Soon, beloved truck-based SUVs transitioned into crossovers, like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, appealing to this safety-oriented trend.
Today, crossovers are still kings in the market. Most have better cargo space than a sedan, and they’re cooler than a minivan to drive (because mom probably drove one of those). Plus, you can kind of pretend you’re rugged while camping on vacation in Colorado once every few years.
Arguably, crossovers are essentially lifted wagons with a little more headroom. For example, the Toyota Highlander has shared its platform with the Camry, depending on the production generation. Toyota used to sell a Camry wagon, but it’s disappeared from the US since the rise of the Highlander.
Subaru, the Outlier
There’s one brand which has successfully bucked this trend: Subaru. The once-little Japanese brand has prided itself in being weird and appealing to people with unique tastes. At the moment, you can get three different Subaru wagons: Outback, Crosstrek, and Impreza. Technically the Forester is a crossover, but some might view it as another wagon, and that just proves the point that the lines between wagons and crossovers are actually quite blurry.
Why is Subaru such an outlier? It’s probably because the Subaru customer base sees the utility of a wagon. They like to do outdoor activities, often own dogs, and don’t really care so much about image (yes, you could insert a million jokes right here). Subaru drivers almost revel in marching to the beat of their own drummer.
Should we start writing a eulogy for wagons? Some automotive journalists have suggested they won’t survive past about the mid-2020s. Seeing how the industry can be cyclical and all sorts of things might change, I’m not so sure.
One of the things I loved about my wagon versus the minivan and crossover I’ve owned is that it handles more like a car. The wagon sits lower to the ground, and that means the center of gravity is lower, resulting in better cornering performance. It also had all-wheel drive, so the wagon did far better in the snow than my minivan and matched the performance of the crossover.
I could actually fit more in the back of my wagon than my crossover, even with the third row flipped down. Really, the crossover wasn’t practical at all. Will Americans realize the positive attributes of wagons and ditch their image-conscious car shopping ways? I’m not too hopeful that will happen, but perhaps the children of today won’t want to be caught dead driving a crossover.
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About the author: (Steven Symes)
Steven lives, eats, and breathes the automotive industry. While the vehicles fascinate him, how they're designed, engineered, and manufactured are just as compelling. Steven also has expertise with heavy trucks, equipment, etc. He's an avid off-roader and outdoorsman, when he gets away from the computer.
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