I’m a desperate pack rat, and I make no apologies for the fact. At a moment’s notice, I can lay my hands on the fifth-grade “theme” paper by which I introduced myself to the pleasure of purposeful writing. (It was an attempt at a science-fiction short story.) For their own research papers, I refer my children yet to the 1949 edition of World Book Encyclopedia, the ranks of which I still take responsibility to alphabetize. The black-and-white television in the kitchen imparts its snowy, monochromatic view of broadcast reality without benefit of cable assistance.
Sadly, however, my wife and I put our Wally Wagona faithful ’87 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser eight-passenger station wagonout to sea last year in exchange for a newer sedan. My kids think we’re nuts to pine after the old beastthen again, they also think The Simpsons are this funny gray-and-white TV family and that V2 rockets are the state of the art in aerospace. But truth be told, they, along with my wife and I, were deeply fond of our old highway leviathan, and we all know that its kind will never lumber this way again.
Nowadays, it’s a minivan world, of course. Instead of stretching its expanse fore-and-aft over the length of two parking spaces, the modern family vehicle employs a “bubble-on-wheels” design principle. In today’s minivans, we’re all gumballs in the same dispenser. Gone are the pleasures of sitting rank-and-file (with two facing backward) in the old wagonsand then, usually in the middle of a very long trip, having all kids in attendance conspire simultaneously to swap seats through the laminar airspace behind the rear-view mirror.
So it’s hard to decide whether surprise or curiosity is the more appropriate reaction to the crop of mini-neo-pseudo-wagons rolling onto the current auto scene. Well after most Japanese manufacturers have evicted mini-wagons out of their model lines, and while Saturn and Ford/Mercury suffer in silence with slow-selling versions of their own, Subaru and now Audi are turning heads and racking up sales with their Outback and Avant wagons, respectively.
Both of these vehicles are hard to pigeonhole. Despite uncanny similarities between the two, the Outback and the Avant represent marketing pitches diametrically opposed. The former seeks to capitalize on the raging sport/utility craze by tarting up Subaru’s competent but introverted Legacy wagon with the automotive equivalent of buckskins and rawhide. By contrast, the latter shimmers with poise and finesse worthy of a fashion model who’d never dream of traipsing off the runway. The very names of these two wagons reveal as much. Underneath the badging and the sheet metal, however, are two cars whose powertrains boast championship pedigrees in World Rally Car competition. And as for their wagon body styles, they are really just sedans (the Subaru Legacy and the Audi A4) whose trunks have been inflated to roof level and opened onto the interior.
For sheer chutzpah, Subaru’s Outback merits the more admiration. Here is a best-seller that came out of nowhere while most other manufacturers were jumping on the SUV bandwagon. Subaru, as diehard rally fans know, is virtually synonymous with sophisticated all-time all-wheel-drive; but bootlegging 270-degree turns at 80 miles-an-hour along gravelly alpine roads isn’t North America’s stock image of four-wheeling. Over here, you need a truck to get in and out of your suburban garage, and Subaru didn’t happen to have a truck as the sport/ute craze was building its head of steam. (Of course, the newly debuted ’98 Subaru Forester seeks to redress this grievance.) What else to do, then, but dress up the Legacy wagon with big tires, bulky fenders, and some frog-eye fog lamps and then just tell the Americans they’re looking at a sport/utility vehicle? Or better yet, have Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan tell ’em.
Well, the bold plan has absolutely worked, but for reasons more fundamental than superficial. The Legacy Outback sport wagon is an outstanding performer. Its four-wheel-drive system uses viscous coupling for proportional traction control front and rear. It’s virtually unnoticeableno steering wheel binding, no whining gear trainexcept for the fact that you simply cannot get this vehicle stuck as long as some measure of ground clearance remains under the car. The 165-horsepower, opposed four-cylinder (or “boxer” style) engine is smooth and torquey beyond its stature, and the auto four-speed transmission snaps cleanly, but without jarring, into gear changes.
Dressed to the nines with virtually every available option, the Outback’s “Limited” model features leather seats, stereo radio/cassette/CD with weatherband tuning, and a “cold package” incorporating heated front seats, heated side mirrors, and even a windshield wiper de-icerjust the thing for Nashville’s winter heat wave of ’98. There are even double sunroofs, one in front, one in rear. The car is roomy for five and affords cargo space for 37 or 70 cubic ft., depending on whether the rear seat is upright or folded. Sticker price, as-tested, was $27,090.
That’s a full 20 percent less than Audi’s A4 2.8 Avant wagon, which wore an as-tested sticker of $34,075 (with front-wheel-drive). Audi’s famed Quattro all-wheel-drive powertrain is a $1,650 add-on; it, too, is a decorated veteran of the rally wars. But Audi has resisted the urge to promote the Avant as an off-roader and has instead emphasized the wagon’s autobahn-gobbling proclivities. The 190-horsepower V6 will flat fly. Whereas the Outback offers wheel-travel for tackling off-road obstacles, the Avant’s suspension is tuned for flat-cornering, cruise-missile accuracyat speed. Fifth-generation ABS brakes are taut and superb; the Tiptronic 5-speed semi-auto transmission is a credible substitute for the sportier manual shifter available only with Quattro.
The interior is crisp, Teutonic. Actually, Audi’s interiors are called “atmospheres.” There are three of them, and the rendition in this particular test model was named “Advance,” in reference to its flashes of postmodern, satin-polish aluminum trim, accompanied by real “open-grain” wood and handsome leatherette. Seating is a bit more martial than in the Outback, at least for the cramped rear threesome. Cargo, too, is a bit less ample: 31/64 cubic ft., with the seat upright/folded. A very squeaky center armrest for the driver occasionally spoiled the Avant’s serene “atmosphere.” A rear hatch that often took several tries to latch inspired lingering concerns of its own.
Both of these cars require premium fuel, which further penalizes their less-than-best mileage ratings of 21 city/26 highway for the Subaru, 18/29 for the Audi. Both, however, are incredibly fun to drive, albeit for different reasons and in thoroughly different settings. The Outback is a creditable off-roader, its bulbous, cartoony styling notwithstanding. The Avant is a fleet greyhound, with an athletic, bobtail silhouette to die for. Neither, however, makes a convincing station wagonaccording to the old rules of the game, at least. But times have changed, and now that many of us revile being labeled a soccer-mom or -dad behind the wheel of a minivan, it’s the formerly ubiquitous, now exotic station wagon that appears our latest hip alternative.
Gettin’ his show on the road
Intrepid road-tripper Mike Sliger has posted this communiqué regarding his recent pilgrimage to Detroit for the 1998 North American International Auto Show (Jan. 10-19 at Cobo Center):
“The recurring themes this year were chrome wheels and mountain bikes, though not at the same time. Every luxury and concept car had highly polished wheels, and every carmaker had a mountain bike strapped to the roof of at least one production model. Toyota went a step further by showcasing an indoor rock-climbing demonstration. Although one might expect this display to highlight the company’s Tacoma truck or 4-Runner SUV, it featured instead the revised Corolla economy car. Go figure.
“The big hit of the show was Volkswagen’s new Beetle. Versions were on display in several colorsand in several interactive ‘modes.’ For example, one model allowed car-show visitors to sign the bodywork for posterity; another featured a special gray ‘paint’ that burst into colors when visitors left their handprints on the cara rolling, retro mood ring. Too passé, you say? Well, waiting lines for views of the new Beetle were so long that both escalators at Cobo Center blew their fuses.
“On display were new cars and concepts from Acura to Volvo and everybody in between. Some were on rotating pedestals surrounded by attractive models of the two-legged female variety. (The PC term, of course, is ‘product specialists.’) We tried to speak with representatives at the Saturn and Nissan booths for the sake of a local angle, but they didn’t know anything about their cars outside of their rehearsed speeches. Saturn’s rep did say that the company’s EV1 electric car was being tested in California and Arizona, and the car was doing ‘well’ with some 300 units in use after a year’s time. (To put this in perspective, it was announced at the show that Americans bought 15 million new cars last year, 11 million of them made by the U.S. Big Three alone.)
“Chevrolet put its all-new full-size pickup on display. Ford, in honor of the 50th anniversary of its F-series trucks in ’98, meant to one-up Chevy with its larger-than-life F250 and F350 commercial trucks. The most popular truck at the show, however, was the ‘Big Red Truck’ from Dodge. Parlaying the popularity of its ‘Li’l Red Truck’ from the ’70s, Dodge stuffed this ‘Big Red’ Ram truck with all manner of goodies, including dualie wheels, a constellation of running lights, and a special high-rise cab.
“With even more headroom yet, Mazda’s redesigned Miata convertible rivaled even the new Beetle in terms of crowd appeal. The ever-popular roadster now features headlights that are ‘frenched’ into restyled bodywork (as opposed to the disappearing pop-up style lamps). There’s also more horsepower and a new six-speed gearbox for Mazda’s lone bestseller. The display was a show-stealer: A hydraulic, elevated platform danced and shimmied in time as music blared from a loudspeaker.
“Favorable impressions abounded at this year’s show: ‘Sport Truck of the Year’ was the Dodge Dakota with the new 5.9-liter V8. Gloating over the fact that its Camry sedan was the best-selling car of the year, Toyota introduced a Camry-based Solara coupe. Chevy capitalized on its NASCAR laurels with the Intimidator concept, based on the Monte Carlo sport coupe. Ferrari and Lamborghini, of course, preened behind look-but-don’t-touch velvet cordons. AM General, perhaps figuring that its Hummer was no fashion plate in the styling department, suspended the front wheels of its monster SUV 10 feet in the air for a gee-whiz glimpse of its one-of-a-kind suspension and ‘geared hub’ drive-line.
“Judging by both the crowds and displays at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, America’s car culture is alive and well and rarin’ to go for ’98.”
Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at (615) 385-2930, or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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