Family Matters: Wagons Back?

If recent sales figures are a good indicator, you don’t have to have a beehive hairdo and rhinestone-encrusted glasses to like station wagons. Far from the boxy, wood-paneled models our mothers drove, today’s wagons are cool and fun to drive. They’re as trendy as that designer coffee you burned your lips on this morning and the alpha-hydroxy acids you slathered on your face last night.

Wagons never really went out of style. They’re as classic and enduring as a little black dress. They just found fewer and fewer fans in the wake of the minivan/SUV wave.

But today, after abandoning wagons for vans and sport-utes en mass about two decades ago, families are jumping back into wagons, and car companies are falling over themselves to bring new wagons to market. Four years ago, there were only 13 wagon models on the market. Today there are 23, and at least eight new wagons will hit showrooms this year, from the likes of Audi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

Maneuvering for buyers

So what’s so great about wagons?

Audi allroad quattroFirst of all, they drive like cars, not like trucks. They’re a cinch to maneuver – whether cruising the highway or a school parking lot. Better yet, you can actually fit one in a compact parking space and enter a parking garage without scraping off your roof rack.

Station wagons really are just sedans with extra cargo room. They offer nearly the same cargo capacity as a mid-size SUV (and with optional rear seats, the same seating capacity, too), but with better fuel economy and far more refinement. The only trade-off will be a few inches of ground clearance, and really, how much ground clearance do you need to drive to a soccer game?

Wagons are incredibly easy to use. You don’t need climbing equipment to get in and out, and you don’t need NBA leaping skills to reach and close the rear hatch. There are five wide doors to throw things through, whether that means kids, dogs, dry cleaning or groceries. And there are fold-away rear seats, split folding seatbacks, integrated booster seats, plentiful cupholders and door pockets, flat load floors, extendable load floors, cargo hooks, and roof racks.

Wagons are easy to love. Take my friend Else. With three kids and a penchant for camping, she’s the perfect candidate for a minivan or SUV. But she wouldn’t trade her wagon for the world. She likes her wagon’s low center of gravity because it makes her feel more secure on mountain roads. She likes the fact she can load her grocery bags in back side-by-side instead of on top of each other as in some vans. And she likes that her wagon isn’t so spacious as to encourage clutter. In short, she likes owning a car, not a truck.

Else’s not alone. More and more people are opting for wagons over vans and SUVs. Sure, some minivans and sport-utility vehicles can out-haul them, but station wagons are emerging as today’s most prestigious family haulers. Consider these ten great wagons:

Ford Focus Wagon: Inexpensive yet stylish and very spacious.

Audi A4 Avant: More fashion sense than almost anything in your closet.

Volkswagen Passat Wagon: Consumer Reports' favorite wagon is agile, comfortable and roomy.

Audi allroad quattro: All-wheel drive and sports car performance in a mountain climber’s body.

Subaru Legacy Outback: Affordable four-wheel-drive without the pain of a truck.

Volvo V70: What everyone else is driving, and loaded with safety features.

Saab 9-5 Wagon: Safety with speed, and named best in class by the AAA.

Volvo Cross Country: The Volvo that thinks it's a Range Rover, with all-wheel drive and leather seats.

BMW 540i Sport Wagon: The fastest wagon on the road; be prepared to wrestle your husband for the keys.

Mercedes-Benz E320 Wagon: TV mafia boss Tony Soprano’s wife drives one, so it can’t be bad (or can it?).
More articles by Carol Traeger

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