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Return of the Wagon...?

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TheDetroitBureau.com on Autoblog with Paul Eisenstein

by Paul Eisenstein (RSS feed) on Apr 2nd 2010 at 2:58PM

Return of the Wagon...?

We all have our favorite memories from childhood, and one of mine was piling into the back of the family station wagon, along with a passel of friends, to head to the Jersey Shore for my eighth birthday. Growing up as part of the "Leave it to Beaver" generation, the wagon was as essential a part of life as Tang, TV and my mother's inevitably over-cooked pot roast.

By the time we Boomers began to raise families of our own, the wagon had largely vanished, replaced first by the minivan and then the seemingly ubiquitous SUV. Oh, there were the odd few "two-box" models left on the market, usually a European offering, and maybe the occasional Asian import, but for all practical purposes, the wagon was dead.

Here, in the U.S., anyway. In other parts of the world, Europe in particular, it has actually gained strength over the years, leaving global planners – and a few of us diehard wagon fans – scratching our heads and wondering if this most utilitarian of automotive designs might ever make a comeback here.

There've been a few false starts, promising new entries like the Dodge Magnum failing to gain traction. But if this year's New York International Auto Show is any indication, a new era of the American station wagon may finally be upon us. Maybe.

Paul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials will bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

The annual event at the Big Apple's Jacob Javits Center has brought out a surprising array of wagon offerings – though don't go looking for that old Vista Cruiser. The closest you'll likely come to that classic shape is the Mercedes-Benz E350, which is what some Europeans prefer to call an "estate," and indeed, this no-excuses design has remained popular with the old money crowd on the East Coast.

Detroit's approach is anything but traditional, with the CTS-V Wagon. The high-performance version of the Cadillac 2-box that debuted earlier in the 2010 model-year, it should convince any skeptic that the word "stodgy" isn't a synonym for station wagon. Sure, you have the wagon-like cargo compartment, but the overall look is sleek and sexy and arguably a better execution of Caddy's Art & Science design language than the CTS sedan itself.

Among the other wagons at the 2010 NYIAS, Kia's new offering underscores the problem manufacturers face as they try to revive this moribund market segment. The Korean maker dubbed its new model the Forte 5-door, marketing chief Michael Sprague admitted, because "There are some (negative) connotations in calling something a wagon."

Will this rose by another name sell so sweet? That's what Kia is waiting to see, though the maker's design chief, Peter Schreyer is convinced the time has finally come.

"Wagons have a great future in the U.S.," the German stylist insisted, after the Kia news conference, "because people are going to downsize from SUVs, and if you still need a lot of space, a wagon is a good choice."

That's basically the same strategy behind Acura's decision to launch a 2-box version of the entry-luxury TSX, though here a rose is a rose and called a TSX wagon.

Not everyone is so confident. General Motors' outgoing Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, a long-time wagon fan and a backer of the CTS version, glumly admits, "We haven't sold many" since it was launched, last year, "and I'm not sure we will." For all the talk about a wagon comeback, in the U.S., he says, it never seems to materialize.

The much-heralded Dodge Magnum hit a sales peak of just 74,000, notes Stephanie Brinley, of AutoPacific, Inc., and then steadily declined until the automaker dropped the model. The Volvo V70 couldn't do better than 7,400 units, in 2005, and was 60% off that tepid pace by 2009 when the Swedish maker decided to phase the wagon out.

There is a notable success story in the wagon world: the Subaru Legacy Outback. That's why other makers, such as Toyota, have abandoned the wagon shape in favor of SUVs and, more recently, crossovers. Even Acura's sibling brand, Honda, gave up trying to make a go of the Accord wagon, which it once sustained by shipping from its U.S. plants to more eager overseas markets.

But proponents believe that several things could be working in the wagon's favor. There's that downsizing that Kia's Schreyer points to, as well as the aging of the Boomers. The newest generation of buyers don't carry with them the same mental baggage, so to speak, but see wagons as a good way to haul their real bags. Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel is particularly bullish about the opportunities in the luxury end of the spectrum, quoting data showing sales of high-line wagons could grow by 40% between 2010 and 2014.

And AutoPacific's Brinley points out there is a "notable success" story in the wagon world, the Subaru Legacy Outback, where "the wagon handily outsells the sedan" – by 55,300 to 31,000 in 2009.

Okay, that's not the same as dominating the market like wagons did when my dad was shopping for our next family cruiser. Back then, there was a 2-box version of just about every product on the market, and station wagon sales were measured in the millions.

Nonetheless, "we see growing potential," asserts Honda's Mendel, so don't be surprised to see even more makers enter the segment in the coming years, whether they call them wagons, 5-doors or something else entirely.



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automakers need to stop finding excuses for not offering variations on a body style. the CTS wagon didn't cost that much more to develop. But they also can't expect 20k sales out of it.

Let's take the Buick Regal as an example. I would bet some folks would want one. GM shouldn't have to claim it should sell big to offer it. The body is already done, even if the Regal wagon only sold 2500 copies its a worthwhile entry.

Edited by regfootball
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  • 2 weeks later...

I am all for the return of station wagons... but there is no point unless they are functional. People buy wagons for their usefulness, their cargo space... these rakish wagons with foot-thick D-pillars and tiny cargo areas are worthless, imo. Give us a USEFUL wagon, like davey's old Cavalier... it had good visibility and useful, obstacle-free cargo space.

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