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The "SW" Word

Whither the station wagon?

Last column’s look at convertibles got me thinking about different body styles which have come and gone in and out of favor over the years. One of the most maligned over the past couple of decades has been the station wagon. Patriarch Steve Douglas drove them on episodes of My Three Sons (provided free by Pontiac, one of the show’s sponsors); Jimmy Stewart packed up the family in a very kitchy-looking 1961 Dodge station wagon in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation; and when Lucy and Ricky moved from the city to Connecticut, their eventual vehicle of choice was a Ford station wagon.

The station wagon was invented more or less for the suburbanite who had farther to drive with more stuff to carry around than did city folks. As time went on, station wagons became fancier and fancier, often finding themselves the priciest model in many makes’ lineups. But something happened in the mid 1980s, when Chrysler introduced minivan—the station quickly became passé. As more manufacturers quickly rushed their own minivans to market, station wagon sales figures fell faster than George W’s popularity ratings. The kiss of death was Ford’s introduction of the Explorer in 1991. Although in many respects it looked like a station wagon, Ford declined to call it one. The SUV was born. And everybody had to have one.

Dodge Journey

Well, we all know what’s happened since. Minivans and SUVs were never very fuel-efficient, and with gas prices being what they are these days, minivans and SUVs no longer look so attractive. The station wagon is making a comeback. Sort of. They’re being built all right, but manufacturer’s are reluctant to call them by name. Call it the Hitler syndrome if you will. Nobody names their sons Adolph anymore, and you rarely see a guy with one of those toothbrush mustaches either. Station wagons, in North America anyway, are most likely to be called “crossover vehicles.”

I must confess here to a certain fondness for the station wagon. My mother drove a couple of them back when I was a kid, and I remember always wanting to ride in the back (where there were no seats) and in the nicer weather hanging out the back window (not too far, of course). And just last year, when I was working at one of the local car dealers, a “beauty” of a wood-grained 1995 Buick Century wagon came in on a trade, and I was able to buy it for less than a week’s pay. What a deal! It’s come in very handy for those trips to the home center,and it holds eight passengers when needed. What’s best is, my kids hate being seen in it, so naturally I drive it whenever I can.

For what’s available new out there in station wagonland, I’ve chosen a few far-flung examples. First off is the Scion xB. It’s certainly gotten the square, box-like shape of the traditional station wagon down pat. Although it’s not large, its squareness will swallow a heck of a lot more cargo than, say, a Toyota Corolla sedan. Starting at just under 16 grand it’s a real bargain.

Jim's Buick Century

Something a little more traditional is the new Dodge Journey. Officially a crossover, it unofficially replaces the short-wheelbase Dodge Caravan, which was discontinued when the new, larger Grand Caravan was introduced last year. It’s probably closer in size to the original Dodge Caravan of the 1980s, when minivans were still “mini” and not the behemoths they’ve since become. Starting at just under 20 grand, it’s also somewhat of a bargain in today’s market.

If you’re looking for something with a little more style, a little more “continental,” the Volvo V50 sportswagon ($26,815) might fill the bill, or the Audi A4 Avant ($32,000).

A quick word about naming here. In North America we’ve always called them station wagons. In France they’re shooting brakes; Great Britain for the most part refers to them as estates; and German manufacturers can’t seem to settle: VW sells variants, Audi has avants, while Mercedes, Opel, and Ford call their versions estates. This all of course is true except for the vehicles referred to as MPVs (multi-purpose-vehicles), which I guess are smaller car-based SUVs.

So you see, the station wagon is still alive and well in the world. Just don’t call it that. And when you see my kids, tell them you love my car.

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