Noise, Vibration Harshness: The War Against the Station Wagon

The days of smug Europeans sitting around espresso bars and open-air cafés tut-tutting American stupidity may not be over, but rest assured - insert sound of frosty can of Coors Light popping, followed by sophisticated guzzling noise - the days of Americans muttering about European densité have only just begun, at least if recent announcements by BMW and Volvo that they will stop selling station wagons in the U.S. market come to fruition. (Speaking of which, did you know that Coors cans now turn blue to let you know they're cold?! Snap! How dare anyone call a people responsible for a crucial technological breakthrough like this anything less than totally ingenious?)

;The nominal culprit in the death of the sainted European wagon, of course, is that most tedious of automotive subgenres, the crossover. The crossover has been the worst thing to happen to the cause of driving excitement since the sport-utility vehicle began blighting the automotive landscape in the 1990s. But the real guilty parties are the carmakers themselves. Whatever they say about consumer preferences, automakers have spent years steering American consumers to crossovers, in which they've invested heavily through intensive marketing and preferential pricing. If manufacturers had put the same money toward station wagons, people would be buying station wagons. When you go to lease a BMW 5-series wagon and find out that you can have an X5 for substantially less, good sense often goes out the window.

To be clear, among European automakers, I blame the Germans first. They've consistently overlooked the fact that, although some Americans prefer their cars like their fast food - supersized - a significant portion of us appreciate German cars for their traditional European virtues, including the notion that cars can be quick, safe, and useful without being tall, heavy, or otherwise indiscreet. Turning their backs on the qualities that once made them special, the Germans are kissing off a part of their core audience and pissing off another: those rich enough to buy wagons in spite of the lack of price support. When you come across someone driving a new 5-series wagon today, you are looking at someone from a key, taste-making cohort, people who've spent real amounts of their own money for their car.

The Europeans' folly is clear, but to state the obvious, if the American people were monolithic, we wouldn't have started buying European cars in the first place; we'd still be driving the chrome-laden Detroit behemoths that once ruled the highways. If there weren't yawning demographic and taste divides in this land, half the country wouldn't be preparing to secede over their right to celebrate the Confederacy by brandishing assault weapons in church, while the other half demand that the particulars of safe gay sex be taught in the schools. And vive la difference- this country is big enough to support several different worldviews, no matter how insane. And long may it be so.

One of the more mystifying aspects of the Euro crossover trend, however, is how German luxury makers think that larger, less-efficient vehicles make any sense at a time when they are scrambling to meet stricter upcoming CAFE requirements. While pushing crossovers by massive subvention, they are conspicuously neglecting to offer a wide range of diesels and are simultaneously wringing their hands over fuel-saving gambits - such as an all-hybrid Mercedes-Benz S-class lineup and U.S. sales of B-segment models such as the Audi A2 and a Mini-based BMW - to meet the new standards.

Misreading the richly varied character of the American marketplace, European automakers are failing to embrace the exciting opportunities that fuel-efficient luxury cars and the small car's long-overdue march upscale present. In this observer's view, BMW, which has done so much to improve the automotive landscape in our lifetime, comes in for the greatest blame. Indeed, its recent parade of bloated crossovers have left us thinking that the company - whose controversial Bangle-butt 7-series I once even defended - has, after a long run of laserlike coherence, lost the plot.

Mercedes may have pipped BMW to the crossover market with its ML, the soft-roader whose primary selling feature - the largest three-pointed star in history - resided on its grille. The ML delighted many of the vulgarinos who could afford the freight, but with the X5, the Bavarians became crucial market makers, too. The X5 was admittedly the class of a disagreeable segment and sold well, but that didn't change the fact that it was and is an overweight indulgence that's the dynamic equivalent of taking a refrigerator and strapping it to the roof of one of the company's fine 5-series sedans before jacking it up for further degraded handling.

Talk about putting a governor on the grins. And if that wasn't bad enough, BMW's latest infatuations, the X6 and the 5-series Gran Turismo, take the X5 formula and make it worse by chopping the rear roofline and reducing cargo capacity, making two hard-to-distinguish-from-each-other truck/cars less practical and even uglier. A whole new genus of inexplicable machine, the X6 in one fell swoop nearly undoes all the design good that BMW has done for the planet. That's because the rest of the world's automakers, ever slaves to Bavarian aesthetic sensibilities (can you name an Asian or American car company that hasn't cribbed from the BMW playbook in the last thirty-five years?), seem quite content to follow BMW down this rathole (see Honda Accord Crosstour and Acura ZDX, about whose ugliness I could write a book). Students of the industry will note that we've tread this path before. It was called the Pontiac Aztek.

The good news is that I've seen only three X6s on the road in the two years they've been on offer. BMW 5-series wagon sales may have slowed to a trickle, but the X6 has hardly set the world on fire.

Which is what makes the Volvo announcement that it will stop selling wagons here so inexplicable. Because all I ever see in the Boston-Washington, D.C., corridor are Volvo wagons. They're ubiquitous, iconic, beloved. The news that the company is planning to bail on them in favor of gas-slurping XC models makes about as much sense as an announcement that Johnnie Walker is getting out of the Scotch business and is betting the farm on diet cola, because research shows that people drink more of the stuff.

Hey, Volvo and BMW, please wake up. Your wagons are cool. If only they turned blue to prove it.

Written By; Jamie Kitman Illustrated By: Tim Marrs

ScottB
Just skimmed this article again (dead tree version first). Sales numbers on the Honda and Acura 4door hatches dont seem to be climbing. I have always been a fan of wagons, I dont understand where marketers got the notion buyers would fall in love with the very same body style that was being DUMPED on just a few years ago by the same genius marketing hacks who called hatchbacks "low end", "Cheap" and ugly! Well, Now we have expensive, high end and ugly. I have never felt a traditional wagon bodystyle was ugly if they left off the fake wood. Both 80's and 90's gen Taurus/ Sable are far from ugly and BMW and Audi have offered attractive wagons. I think these new perversions are just odd.
RedOhio
I never read Kitman, I skip everything he writes. He's a Keith Olbermann wanna be. The only reason I still subscribe is that my wife renews it for me.
earthsmart2000
Who doesn't want a car that can haul your stuff and be sporty? I'm pretty sure if you asked that very question to people, most would actually say they WOULD want that. Half the battle really is perception and what people feel comfortable in compared to the Jones'...the bandwagon affect. And the manufacturers delivery to the numbers that come in unfortunately. I can't stand people who can't make a decision without any outside forces pushing them in one direction or another. If it's practical for YOUR everyday use, then buy it. Who cares what your parents drove. I think the focus here is on higher end vehicles too. Don't forget about those of us who would like a wagon ride for less than $20k. Although I would have never looked at a Hyundai before, the Touring is about the closest econo. wagon that's out there these days (could use more cargo ft3 and better mpg). Or you can resort to the Pimp-my-Ride method and make your own, which I'm seriously considering the next time around (bring back a Civic wagon maybe?)
cpr74
Why Americans don't buy wagons:a. Two vehicle households with a pickup surving as the hauler.b. The liftgate on hatchbacks/wagons tend to creek as the mileage racks up, giving the car a less solid feel than a sedan.
Asura
Well, I hope the Outback, which is still more of a wagon than a Crossover, will not end production, and soon, it will probably be the ONLY wagon on sale. Talk about being alone...
offroadbob9
There is a reason Americans do not buy station wagons: they are the same cars that our parents drove. EEEUUUWWWW!!! There is no question that the average Euro-wagon is a million times better than the Olds Vista Cruisers and Ford Ranch Wagons of yore, but it is hard to get over the image. They were the minivans of their day. Double EEEUUUWWWW!!! SUVs and Crossovers, for all their missing driving dynamics, are (or can be) comfortable, quiet, and practical. However, I share the editors' point that diesel engines should be universally available on any sizable vehicle. How about a Toyota Highlander with a 3 liter diesel and lots of tire-shredding torque? Sign me up for that one.
Daye
I love the X6! I think it's cool looking and should have been the model for the new X3. I also like some CUVs, especially the new Tuscon and the Q5. I have found from experience with a Saturn Vue that a CUV seats the same number of people as a station wagon, but it holds more stuff because it is taller. When it comes right down to it, I think a CUV does a better job of hauling stuff than a wagon and a sedan does a better job of hauling @ss that a wagon. Only a few manufacturers have managed to combine the two capabilities into a wagon, but most people want to do one or the other, not both.
robinwatt
As a long time wagon lover, I completely agree with your lament - however the question that should be asked is this: How are American car companies going to capitalize on this European short sightedness? Are we going to see a Taurus SHO Wagon, or a 5 Door Chevy Malibu?Sadly, the answer is probably not.Hopefully, Audi will not follow them 'down the rat hole'
unclebryan
I can't believe that the author and all the posters have ignored the 900 pound gorilla sitting on the couch over there. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. CAFE standards are different for cars than for SUVs so automobile manufacturers naturally want to make as few full-sized cars that get lower fuel economy as they can because it counts towards their "Automobile" total. So they sell you an SUV. When I was a kid a long, long time ago, everyone had a station wagon. That was before our rulers, er, lawmakers decided to mess with market forces and birthed the horrible CAFE standards. So now American motorists are steered by artificial market forces into smaller cars that are inherently more dangerous than larger cars. So our congress is killing Americans so that they and some of their voters can feel good about themselves. Thanks guys.
jeffhenderson
My favorite thing in the article (which reads like a typical old-school letter to the editor whine-fest), is "When you go to lease a BMW 5-series wagon and find out that you can have an X5 for substantially less, good sense often goes out the window. "Lease and good sense? If you are leasing you deserve whatever Fate has in store for you. It just cracks me up in an article that has a few anti-American cracks and reads with an elitist tone ("those rich enough to buy wagons in spite of the lack of price support.") that the author uses a lease example, very American and bloated if anything ever has been.That being said I love people who lease cars, since I'm the guy that gets their dealer-maintained, low mileage vehicles after they take all the depreciation hit.
Skywatcher
You need to buy a clue. Ralph Nader and the US Govt. killed the station wagon in the US with insane safety requirements, which neither minivans nor SUVs nor crossovers have to meet. Station wagons cost a LOT more to manufacture, which is why they cost more, and why they don't sell well. Does no one remember even recent history or pay any attention to unwanted consequences anymore?
btgiv
O.K., so now we're off in Tom Friedman land. These paranoid theories of how car makers "steer" drivers into certain vehicles against their will is more than a bit nutty. If it was that easy, why did Hummer go under? Why not steer us into vehicles made of solid gold with diamond and ruby accents?Here's the bottom line: Car makers need to make money. If selling go-carts would make them a nice profit, that's what they would do. If BMW and Volvo are halting U.S. wagon sales, it's because there are not enough customers for these products to make them profitable (or at least not profitable enough to justify the resources required to make them). It's really that simple. I understand the frustration that comes when a product you like is phased-out -- Happens to me all the time. But that does not mean the companies are "stupid". I dare say they understand the market for their products better than any of us do.
Doppelgamer
I once owned a 90 Subaru Legacy wagon 5 speed and it was probably the best car I ever owned. Since it died, I had several low-cost wrecks that were A-B drivers. Not a single one came close to the utility of the wagon and the unstoppable nature of AWD. Recently, after months of searching, I found a 2004 Legacy wagon (yes, they exist!) with all the features I wanted. It was drowning in a sea of Outbacks. But I fear it is the last, newest Subaru I will own. Subaru stopped production of the US wagon. The Outback, like the parasite it is, has cast off it's drained host of the Legacy model line and become a bloated crossover. Dark days, indeed.
KaBoomBOX
Thank You!European makers have proven that wagons don't have to be the boring grocery-getters of the 70's and 80's. Not just the Germans either, The french and italians seem to get it. Heck, even Detroit's European counterparts make some excellent and desirable wagons. The problem is that marketing types keep leading women buyers to something else. First Minivans, then mom can't be minivan driving soccer-mom, How Gauche! She had to be outdoorsy and independent, sitting high and safe in a gargantuan SUV. Now we have the silly "Sporty, yet still High and Safe, CUV's. When will it end?
westsider90025
I just leased one of the last E61 535i wagons (and yes, the lease deal is terrible b/c low residuals, but I own a business and it makes sense to lease) and can't think of a more perfect all-around car. I've always loved wagons, and though my parents have had 2 X5's, I just never loved those cars. Too tall, too bulky, too much the sense of big tires and aggressive tuning wrestling with all that weight and height. I'm saddened that I may not have another wagon option in 3 years when my lease is up. The guy at BMW actually tried to convince me to consider the 5GT as an alternative to the Touring, and I laughed in his face. Meanwhile, Europe is swimming in fantastic wagons - Audi Avants, BMW Tourings, Merc's - all available with fantastically torquey and efficient diesels. My ideal spec would have been a 535d turbodiesel wagon, but alas, I live in the land of cheap gas and humongous cars.Hopefully all this retro-80s mentality will bring back love for the wagons.
joppelaar
My wife and i drove an XC90 and an XC70. They were both soulless, powerless pigs. We ended up with a used V70R wagon (AWD, mind you) for significantly less money, and we are in heaven. I am completely committed to the cause of the hot wagon.But of course, they killed the R range even before they killed the wagon. -sigh-
CalHoon
I think the trend was set by American automakers with the small SUV. The Explorer, Jimmy, etc started Americans on the path of the upright positioned family mobile. As a car salesman who sells a very popular modern wagon, I must say that the desire for upright seating and better visibility is rampant. The compact SUV gives near identical cargo volume, but lacks the tunnel like interior that inhibits the confidence of your average driver. The benefit of handling, mileage, and performance that the wagon offers is lost on this segment of the market. Ease of entry/exit is another major factor. The elder crowd, and even the baby boomers are with back problems that drive them toward higher hip level sleds. Take a look at the CR-V, Forester, RAV4, those are the modern family wagons, and frankly I think they do a better job. As a performance oriented driver, I would much prefer a euro-type wagon but I am and WE the readers of car mags are the minority.
secrummy
Kitman, I still contend you drive me nuts most of the time, but once again I find I must agree with you. You really hit the nail on the head when it comes to the European manufacturers. Bring us the wagons! Bring us the diesels! Bring us the interesting small cars! Volvo's with no wagons? What's next? A Saab with the ignition key on the steering column? That's just silliness...
b06saj
...Excellent and well written! - I couldn't agree more...

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