A key family hauler for much of the 20th century now accounts for a sliver of the American auto market.
If the automobile business in the United States is indeed a cyclical affair, the station wagon is due for a renaissance.
Just don’t hold your breath.
The station wagon — known also, depending on the culture, as an estate, an avant, a woodie, kombi or caravan — was a key family hauler for much of the 20th century. Wagons shuttled goods to market, picked up arriving guests at the train station (a station wagon!), ferried the children to soccer and served as sleep-in digs for broke surfers.
But these long-roofed, two-box conveyances became victims of the gas crisis of the 1970s. Sales and demand eroded further in the ’80s with the emergence of Chrysler’s minivan. The big-time blow was struck in the ’90s; it was called the sport utility vehicle.
For American wagon devotees seeking a new ride, the list is short and getting shorter. Wagons are a small fraction of the domestic car market. The survivors can be counted on one hand, give or take a couple of fingers. Wagons from Ford, Saturn and Chevrolet are history. The BMW 3 series and the Honda Accord wagons are taillights.
One particularly painful nail was pounded into the coffin this year by Volkswagen of America. The company announced that it would suspend production of the Golf Sportwagen and Golf Alltrack wagons to make room at its Mexico plant to build more, you got it, S.U.V.s.
“More than 50 percent of Volkswagen’s American sales are now coming from S.U.V.s,” said Mark Gillies, a spokesman for VW. “We have seen demand for the Sportwagen and Alltrack fall away dramatically over the past year, so it wasn’t possible to make a business case for the next-generation Golf wagons in this market.”
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, a columnist for Automobile magazine who occasionally contributes to The New York Times, offered the industry’s cold, hard math. “There’s the fundamental calculation, that automakers make more money selling crossovers than cars,” Mr. Kitman said. “Look at the Ford Escape, essentially a Ford Focus, and you can spend $39,000 for an Escape or $23,000 for the Focus.
“It’s a paradigm,” he added. “The companies say, ‘We’re just serving the market,’ but, really, the market is serving them. Maybe people are coming in and asking for S.U.V.s because the companies have spent billions of dollars marketing them.”
A brand that can be seen as either visionary or stultified in station-wagon-land is Audi. By this time next year, the German company should have three on sale in the United States, with one of them — the 592-horsepower RS6 Avant — priced well north of $100,000.
“We see opportunities with the Avant and the Allroad,” said Mark Dahncke, an Audi spokesman. He said the all-wheel-drive Allroads, which are based on the A4 and A6 sedans and start at just below $47,000, might attract a buyer who was S.U.V.-ed out.
“It brings a level of functionality wrapped in the package of a car,” Mr. Dahncke said. “Young adults of today, after they’ve lived through four or five S.U.V.s, may say they no longer need an off-road car but one that handles better, with a lower center of gravity.”
While some companies are guessing at what might be “the next S.U.V.,” Volvo also sticks with a pair of wagons, the V60 and V90, for the United States market. Volvo, based in Sweden but owned by Geely of China, has retained loyal wagon customers since the 1960s thanks in part to its family-friendly reputation for solidity and safety. (Writers have called Volvo wagons a “suburban cliché.”)
“There is still a segment that comes looking for wagons,” said Peter Fearon of Volvo Cars of Queens, in Bayside. “They don’t want a truck. They want the car feel, but they like the extra space.”
One issue that puts off potential wagon buyers is the price of leasing. Because wagons generally are low-volume sellers, the manufacturers don’t offer aggressive leasing or finance rates on them.
Beyond Volvo and Audi in the States, Mercedes-Benz imports a pair of E-class beauties, the E400 and E63S, with prices that range from $66,000 to more than $108,000 for the AMG edition. They’re hard to find on most dealer lots.
Buick — where did that come from? — sells the handsome, all-wheel-drive Regal TourX, which echoes the design cues of previous Volvo and BMW wagons. It’s fairly spunky, with 250 horsepower, and has 73 cubic feet of cargo space. The base price is less than $31,000.
For wagon fans who may wish to stretch the definition, there are the Mini Clubman and the Subaru Outback. The adorable Clubman is exceptional on the road, but it’s a rather shrunken take on the traditional wagon form; in other words, it’s a Mini. At the other end of the spectrum, the Outback is practical for hauling, but it’s bulky and inelegant; in other words, it’s a Subaru.
And for those seeking a viable wagon relic, there’s alway a woodie.
More than a half-century has passed since the Beach Boys celebrated these funky wagon/cars in “Surfin’ Safari.” (“Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out, some honeys will be coming along. We’re loading up our Woodie, with our boards inside.”) There are now more than 2,600 members of the National Woodie Club, according to the elder woodie statesman John Lee (he’s 79), who edits the Woodie Times newsletter.
“Actually, the first cars around 1900 were practically all wood, with wood frame and floors, and early bodies were often made of wood,” Mr. Lee said. By the ’40s and ’50s, some carmakers had added handsome side panels, some made of contrasting dark and lighter wood shades, and hand-built hardwood passenger compartments.
But not long after, companies including Chrysler and Buick discontinued wood in favor of steel structures, although some continued to offer a “woodie look” by adding vinyl, plastic or decals to the wagons. Jeep’s Wagoneer, perhaps the first S.U.V., soldiered on: It was offered, with wood-grained sides and luxury fittings, from the ’60s until 1991. A late-model Grand Wagoneer 4×4 from the restorer Wagonmaster today fetches $89,000.
Woodies aside, expanding beyond a niche remains a challenge for station wagons. It will most likely have to follow a resurgence of the conventional sedan-and-coupe segment. The signs are not encouraging; just this year, more than half a dozen car models are becoming extinct, including Ford’s Fusion and Focus, and the Chevrolet Impala and Cruze.
“In the rest of the world, the station wagon is a popular car,” Mr. Kitman said. “In the U.S., they’ve become cars for rich people.”
He added: “They don’t get the fancy leases. They don’t get the cash back. They’re for people who know cars, people who are smart and they have more money. But they’ve deprived the rest of us.”