When you shop for a new car, automakers are happy to offer you crossovers, vans, SUVs, hatchbacks, sedans, coupes and convertibles – anything but a wagon. Car companies that do offer wagons seem to go out of their way not to call them station wagons, rechristening them as “sport wagons” or “touring” models. What gives?
After spending decades as the go-to family car in the U.S., station wagons started losing ground in the 1990s. Minivans became all the rage, and after that, families discovered the increased space and cooler-looking exterior design of the SUV. But with people now paying more attention to fuel costs and gas mileage, the time could be ripe for a station wagon renaissance. If you’re considering a wagon, here’s what you need to know.
What is a Wagon?
Technically speaking, a wagon is a vehicle body style that typically has four doors and a roof that extends over the cargo area. What differentiates wagons from hatchbacks is that wagons have four pillars (a pillar is the metal column that extends from a car’s body to its roof, separating the windows). Hatchbacks typically only have three pillars. Wagons also generally have a third window behind the back-seat window if you’re looking at a wagon from the side.
The definition of a wagon body style is similar to SUVs because most SUVs have wagon bodies: four doors, four pillars and an enclosed cargo area. But wagons are distinct from SUVs in a few ways. For one, SUVs historically were built on truck platforms and rode higher off the ground, while wagons use car platforms. Also, SUVs typically offer buyers two-, four- or all-wheel drive (AWD). Wagons, on the other hand, usually offer two-wheel drive, though some have AWD.
Wagons have the most in common with crossovers. Crossovers take SUV bodies and similar styling cues but ride on a car platform. Though they tend to be taller than wagons and have a higher driving position, the odds are that if you’re shopping wagons, you’ll also consider a few crossovers.
What Wagons Offer
Since wagons are so similar to crossovers, you might wonder why you should consider one over the other. Though the two have a lot in common, wagons have a few advantages. Wagons tend to be smaller and lighter than crossovers. They also tend to be lower to the ground, meaning they have less wind resistance. All of this translates to better fuel economy. Also, because of their slightly smaller size, wagons tend to be easier to drive, more maneuverable and have better handling.
Though they have a smaller overall size, wagons still have plenty of cargo space. Take the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen. It has 32.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row and 66.9 cubic feet of space with the second row folded. The Volkswagen Tiguan, VW’s small crossover, has only 23.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row and 56.1 cubic feet of space when the back seat is folded. The Jetta SportWagen also starts at $2,400 less than the Tiguan, and gets about three more miles per gallon in combined driving with an automatic transmission, according to the EPA. If your priority is hauling cargo and sticking to a budget, the Jetta SportWagen is the better choice.
Compact wagons are often compared with hatchbacks, though they typically offer more cargo space. You can easily get into a nicely-equipped small wagon for less than $20,000. The Subaru Impreza wagon, for example, earns praise for its excellent safety scores and standard all-wheel drive. The Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen also has good safety scores and is available with a diesel engine that can get up to 42 mpg on the highway.
Wagons that are larger than the Impreza have a lot in common with crossovers. They generally start at less than $30,000 and have more passenger and cargo space. Plus, you can often get optional features that you may not be able to get on a compact wagon. For example, the Toyota Prius v has Toyota’s Entune data service that gives local information for things like traffic and weather.
Luxury wagons start at about $32,000 and offer the same features and driving experience you’d find in a luxury sedan, but with extra cargo space. The Acura TSX Sport Wagon and Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon easily run with their sedan counterparts. The Mercedes-Benz E350 4MATIC Wagon offers the same V6 engine and seven-speed automatic transmission as the E350 sedan, but also comes standard with all-wheel drive. The E-Class Wagon is also available as an AMG model, which has a 518-horsepower twin-turbocharged V8 engine. Most wagons aren’t as powerful as the E63 AMG, but the Cadillac CTS-V Wagon has a 556-horsepower, supercharged V8. By going for a luxury wagon, especially a model as powerful as the E63 AMG or CTS-V, you can get the cargo and passenger space you need, as well as the sports car-like performance you want.