April 23, 2011

Confession #24: Impulsive, non-committal type seeks functional, fast wagon for friendship

(Saab Automobile AB photo)
Wagons are perfect for someone who favors diplomatic decisions over democratic ones. And even for someone who wants a quick escape, just in case the choice doesn't work.

Take a detour to Ikea one Saturday? You can spend hundreds of dollars in assemble-yourself furniture and spend the rest of the weekend scratching your head and screaming at an Allen wrench. And then return it in pieces the following weekend while trying to keep the rage to a minimum at the customer service desk.

Have you just started scuba sessions? Dozens of oxygen tanks will fit without drama.

Yes, a crossover or minivan will do this too. But those are much larger, much more cumbersome – and less fuel-efficient – machines. And they all smack of a conformist, suburban image. Someone should tell the kid in the Toyota Highlander commercials his parents are as uncool as his friends’ parents.

You’d think the car that basically defined the upper crust soccer mom image, the Volvo wagon, would also be susceptible to being seriously uncool.

2011 Volvo XC90 T6
(Volvo Cars North America photo)
But in these leaner times, the Volvo wagon is a symbol for inconspicuous consumption. Yes, a new one costs north of $30,000 (so do all well-equipped crossovers), it only has seating for five (as do many SUVs) and it doesn’t achieve a Prius level of frugality. Yet a Volvo gives off an image of toughness and solidity, meaning it’ll last 100 years. It’s not really a myth either. Recalling my high school days, my student parking lot was full of Volvo wagons of various vintages. And they largely stood up to the abuse a 17-year-old driver inflicts on a car.

1993 Volvo 240 Wagon
Volvo has certainly dropped the ball a bit on the US wagon market though. Instead of defending their turf (When was the last time there was a US Volvo wagon ad?) they banked on the XC60 and XC90 crossovers. Last year they canceled the large front-wheel drive V70 wagon. Now they’re axing the smaller V50. Right now, the only wagon-based Volvo is the jacked-up XC70. And you can now get it without all-wheel drive, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a wagon made to look like a tough off-roader. At least it comes with a turbocharged six-cylinder, capable of surprising aggressive drivers who still wrongly assume a Volvo wagon can't keep pace.

2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic Wagon
(Daimler AG photo)
Mercedes-Benz hasn’t lost the plot though. The E350 4Matic wagon harks back to the wagons the company offered in the '70s and '80s, down to the tiny rear-facing seat in the trunk that we all thought was so cool when we were seven. And it’s massive inside. With all of the seats folded, the E-class can carry about as much as a normal Range Rover. It also has that solid feeling. Granted, most go for well above the $60,000 mark, but it'll last so long that it could be the last car you ever buy. Possibly the most dignified wagon on the market.

2012 Saab 9-5 Aero SportCombi
(Saab Automobile AB photo)
Most interesting is Saab’s new entry into the segment – the 2012 9-5 SportCombi. Admittedly, I have a strong case of Saabophilia. But the new 9-5 lugger is massive – longer than even the E350. That means it’s massive inside. It looks striking too. And comes with two turbocharged engines, the most enticing of which is a V6 with 300 horsepower mated to all-wheel drive and an electronic limited slip diff.

2010 Saab 9-3X
(Saab Automobile AB photo)
Saab is probably the most committed wagon manufacturer of the moment. The 9-3 is available as either a front-wheel drive stylish hauler, or the all-wheel drive pseudo off-roader, the 9-3x. And both come with a four-cylinder turbo engine mated to either six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. They're long-in-the-tooth by modern car standards and not quite as plush as anything with a German badge. But it's a wagon you're going to have forever and get dog hair and sand everywhere inside anyway.

2011 BMW 3-Series Sport Wagon
(BMW Group photo)

2011 Audi A4 Avant Quattro
(Audi photo)
Speaking of Germans, Audi will only offer you a smaller A4 Avant, and only with an automatic and the Quattro system. BMW has only the 328i, in rear or all-wheel drive. It chose not to import the latest 5-series wagon, favoring the hideous 5-series GT hatchback-thing. When the next-generation 3-series bows in the next couple of years, it's widely believed the wagon will be killed in favor of a 3-series GT thing.

2011 Acura TSX Sport Wagon
(American Honda photo)

Acura recently launched the TSX Sport Wagon. While it’s a decent looker and extremely well priced (just over 30 grand), it shares the TSX sedan’s fault of being pretty anodyne. Plus it's automatic-only and doesn't have an all-wheel drive option, which means crossovers beat it in the all-out capability category.

2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen
(Volkswagen photo)

For less money and more economy, there's the Volkswagen Jetta. Also fairly anonymous, but the TDI diesel version gives hybrid-rivaling economy. And it's more commodious and a better driving car than a Prius. Plus, versions with sat nav and a big sliding glass roof cost no more than $30,000.

2011 Cadillac CTS-V wagon
(General Motors photo)

And then there's the completely bonkers Cadillac CTS-V wagon, which essentially has a Corvette ZR1 supercharged V8. Think about it: a 556-horsepower machine with space for two big labradors. Irrational, yet still justifiable. Somehow.

Still, it’s hard to go wrong with any wagon on the market these days. They don’t take up more space than a normal sedan, yet offer more impulse utility. And those of us who can’t commit to an apartment, let alone a piece of furniture, can take comfort in knowing your wagon will take anything you throw at it.

That, of course, is the point of utilitarian wagons. They're not fashion statements, they're timeless. They're meant to be solid and take decades of punishment. Wagons like these are meant to be loyal and long-lasting, and not shout about it.

That means the anti-commitment types finally have something to warm up to. One step at a time.