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CARLSBAD, California — Our convoy of wagons snakes over the spine of the southern Sierras and drops into the hot, parched Anza Borrego Desert. This was once a portion of the Butterfield Stagecoach route, and I can only imagine the contrast of travel. My coach has seats that will cool my backside (or heat it when the desert cools at night), a chilled glove box to keep liquids cold and chocolate from melting — not to mention nimble steering, a superb suspension and a turbocharged engine to propel me through space at speeds that range from slow to many horses.
A sign directs me to our lunch stop, some two-and-a-half miles into the desert on a slightly rutted dirt road. I realize that I’ve been on this trail a number of times in the past, but always driving a sport-utility vehicle or a light truck. Today, my transport is a Saab 9-5 wagon — and I’m impressed by its safety and comfort, versatility and fashionableness.
These days, SUVs dominate the U.S. market. In fact, it's almost cliché to mention the light truck segment's explosive growth in the past decade here. In Europe, however, where fuel prices are higher and streets smaller, even the most thrifty and maneuverable SUVs are a rare sight while the likes of the Suburban, Expedition and other large sport-utes are as foreign as Fiats in Kansas.
Fuel for the sport-wagon fire
Light trucks don't sell well in Europe, but the demand for vehicles that combine sport and utility — the fuel for the SUV boom — is alive and well there, just as it is here. Enter the sport wagon — a niche product stateside, but all the rage across the pond.
Audi's A4 and A6 wagons, for example, are some of Europe's hottest cars but sell in relatively small numbers in North America. Mercedes' C-Class and BMW's 3 Series sedans have found many American homes, but did you know that both could be had in station wagon form in their home markets? With the exception of the popular Volvo wagons and Subaru’s Outback sport, the sport wagon is still a relatively new concept, but it’s a niche that is growing fast.