Explaining the Death and Rebirth of the WagonPosted: September 8, 2011
Wagons have a pretty colored history here in America. For ages and ages, they were the ride of choice for the American mom, with long wheelbases, huge interior room, smooth styling, and excellent visibility. However, starting before the beginning of the SUV craze, wagons somehow became uncool among America’s mainstream car buyers.
The minivan is what started the revolution. Back in 1984, work was completed on the so-called “garage-able van”, a concept in Lee Iacocca’s head when he was at Ford, which eventually went to Chrysler. It took a bit of time to catch on at first, but now, the minivan segment is one of the most competitive in the nation, with Chrysler and its brands normally holding at least one of the aces in the deck. This was the beginning of the end for the wagon as the American family car. However, wagons were still big for a while after this, until the Ford Explorer came out–by that point, wagons were starting to peter out. The big wagons, at least, went away first, with Chrysler killing its RWD wagons in 1981 due to slow sales, and Ford doing the same just ten years later. GM, meanwhile, did their best with the RWD wagons, getting them to 1996–only to convert the factory to big SUV production (Priorities, priorities…). The Big Three hasn’t really done much to go back to wagons in recent years. Worse, the Germans are starting to dump some of their wagons; BMW dumped the 5-Series wagon in America in favor of the somewhat ungainly Gran Turismo (and rumor has it that the 3-Series will get the same fate in time) and Audi will not sell the new A6 Avant in the States.
FWD wagons did a bit better, and are still with us, to some extent. GM killed their FWD wagons in 1996, as they killed off the variants of the Olds Cutlass Ciera and Buick Century. Ford, meanwhile, kept a FWD wagon around (anyone remember the Taurus?) and eventually got them to crossovers via the Ford Taurus X and Freestyle, which died in 2008. Chrysler sort of forgot about the wagon market, re-entering it for a short period of time in the last decade with the Magnum. Volkswagen brought back the Jetta Sportwagen a few years back. But, of course, there’s a lot more to it than this.
One of the biggest killers of the traditional station wagon was the SUV. When the Explorer hit the streets, the high driving position, ease of operation, and excellent visibility were a hit with the public, and the shape gave a commanding view of the road. Meanwhile, wagons got the “un-cool” sticker, as Americans went straight for the new “in” thing. It’s a trend that’s been in the industry for decades, and when it hit wagons, it hit harder because everyone copied Ford by 1995, spelling doom. Wagons attempted to stay relevant by offering a four-wheel drive option during this time, which worked for a short period. If a buyer wanted four-wheel-drive, Subaru offered it as a standard feature. Within the premium segment, Mercedes-Benz had the 4Matic system in the E-Class. However, this didn’t last, because in 1999, Lexus introduced the RX300, the first premium crossover SUV, creating a new segment overnight, and the smaller crossovers soon followed, forcing other companies to follow suit, shrinking the wagon segment further. Volvo even got in on the bandwagon, offering the “Cross-Country” version of their venerable V70 wagon as the XC70, and eventually introduced an SUV of their own, the XC90. A decade and change on, and Volvo has stopped selling the traditional V70 altogether in order to focus on the XC70, which has been selling more units in the United States for quite some time. The crossover SUV became the new “cool” thing to have, increasing the wagon’s uphill battle even more.
That said, as the 2000s moved on, enthusiasts kept the wagons alive. Stuff like the Dodge Magnum and the Cadillac CTS Wagon have allowed enthusiasts, who normally would prefer a lower driving position and center of gravity to a tippy SUV or crossover, to haul the kids and their stuff around with ease (and a big dose of fun). Of course, Subaru’s helped as well, with stuff of joy like the WRX wagon and its ilk. The Germans, of course, haven’t abandoned the market, with wagon versions of the E-Class, BMW 3-Series, and Audi A4. Acura, meanwhile, got in on the fun this past year with the new TSX wagon, and Mercedes is thankfully reintroducing the E63 AMG wagon Stateside in the coming months. While neither of the two are high-volume, consider this: despite the fact that Acura’s production of of the TSX wagon only totals 5% or so of their total amount, they have no problem selling them. Meanwhile, Cadillac is only producing about 2,000 CTS-V wagons per year, but the dealers seem to have little trouble moving them. While it is becoming more of a niche market, the segment is still seeing fresh new entries.
The wagon’s original purpose as simple family transport may have been passed up to SUVs, vans, and crossovers, but the wagon itself is still being used for the same purpose as it was years ago. This is because enthusiasts like you and I have a desire for a people-mover without the high center of gravity or plebiean personality of crossovers and their brothers. The wagon may not be as big of a seller as it used to be, but its appeal has shifted to a point where enthusiasts want to keep it alive. Whether the car in question is an ancient American barge or a new-age, Europeanesque backroads burner, or an offbeat monster like the CTS-V wagon, the station wagon isn’t going to go away.