Noise, Vibration Harshness: The War Against the Station Wagon

June 25, 2010
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


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