In the '60s and '70s, it was station wagons. Along came minivans in the '80s, followed by sport/utility vehicles in the '90s. While the SUV phenomenon continues to rage seemingly unabated, the first decade of the 21st century is showing signs of yet another trend in automotive design, featuring none other than the return of the wagon.
Sport wagon, estate wagon, station wagoncall them what you will. For many prospective buyers, wagons of one kind or another represent the sane, safe, versatile way to combine people and cargo hauling in one economical and environmentally friendly package.
BMW 3-Series & 5-Series wagons BMW wagons represent the benchmark of luxury and style. The smaller 325i and 325xi models offer rear-wheel- and all-wheel-drive, respectively. Both feature BMW’s 184-hp inline-six. Stepping up in size brings into view the 525i and 540i wagons with their roomy brand of luxury. The 525i sports the 184-hp inline-six, whereas the 540i boasts a 290-hp V8. Seating is for five. The BMWs aren’t cheap, and their interior features, while handsome, can often be confusing. No other brand, however, offers the same distinctive athleticism of a BMW, which in the 3-Series wagon is stunningly unique.
Chrysler PT Cruiser Despite heritage styling, the PT Cruiser is a thoroughly non-traditional wagon. It’s based on the versatile Neon subcompact, and it employs various methods for configuring seats and a load shelf to accommodate different combinations of up to five passengers and cargo. New for 2003 is a 215-hp turbo based on the same 2.4-liter inline-four that makes 150-hp in non-turbo trim. Driving feel is sporty, particularly in the turbo; and styling is decidedly funky, if not to everybody’s taste.
Ford Focus & Taurus wagons It’s a long way from the days of the classic Ford LTD “Woodie” wagons in which many baby-boomers took their first road trips. Still, Ford’s comprehensive lines of Focus compact and Taurus mid-size wagons are plenty versatile and distinctly more contemporary. Focus wagons feature Ford’s 2.0-liter inline-four tuned for 130 hp. In the Taurus, there’s a choice between two 3.0-liter V6s: the 155-hp “Vulcan” with a two-valve head and the 200-hp “Duratec” with a four-valve head. If driving feel is somewhat uninspiring, both Ford wagons are nevertheless notable for their safety and versatility in combining passengers and cargo.
Lexus IS300 SportCross Here’s a rear-drive BMW-fighter that combines luxury details with distinctive styling and attitude. The Lexus SportCross is a thoroughly modern sport wagon that combines a spirited inline-six making 215 hp with the roomy versatility of a five-passenger wagon and ample cargo space at the rear. Exterior styling is hip and urban, yet a bit too unusual for some traditionalists. While powertrain and suspension look sporty on the spec sheet, SportCross’ driving personality isn’t quite as enthusiastic as some of its rivals. Still, the IS300 SportCross is Lexus’ most credible effort to date in cloning a distinctly Euro-style sport wagon.
Mazda Protege5 This trendy people pod looks like it drove right out of a video game. Based on the popular Protege subcompact, the Protege5 is more than a sport wagon; it’s a lifestyle statement. A 2.0-liter, 130-hp four-banger supplies the power, and sporty suspension and brakes deliver the energetic handling feel. Seating for five is a given, but think twice before asking everybody along for that cross-country road trip. Far better is this Mazda’s urban manners in congested traffic and tight parking lots.
Mercury Sable wagon It’s easy to dismiss the Sable wagon as a mere clone of its Taurus sibling. True, the same 3.0-liter powertrain choices prevail: a 157-hp “Vulcan” V6 and a 200-hp “Duratec” V6. The interior and exterior dimensions are likewise nearly identical. Where Sable merits attention, however, is in the different trim packages offered, which generally consist of luxury and convenience amenities at competitive prices. Befitting the luxury pretensions, moreover, are certain minor suspension tweaks meant to deliver a softer, plusher ride.
Pontiac Vibe This is another example of completely new thinking about the design and function of the traditional station wagon. Like the Mazda Protege5, Toyota Matrix and even the upscale Lexus SportCross, Pontiac’s Vibe combines attitude, cargo/passenger versatility and compactness. A basic 1.8-liter inline-four delivers 130 hp in the base, fronrive model, which falls to 123 hp in the all-wheel-drive model. Extra tuning in the GT version combines 180 hp with fronheel-drive. Five-passenger seating in a car this size is a cramped but legitimate accomplishment. More clever yet is the cargo versatility, with front and rear seats folding in many strategic combinations.
Saturn L-Series wagons Hidden amongst Saturn’s imporighting, budgeeating compacts is the pleasant surprise of their LW200 and LW300 wagons. Although their L-Sedan siblings are slow to catch on, the L-Wagons are impressively sophisticated for the price. Underhood, the LW200 wears a 135-hp, 2.2-liter “Ecotec” inline-four that mates to a five-speed manual or optional four-speed auto; and the LW300 sports a 3.0-liter V6 making 182 hp and comes only with the automatic. Driving feel is pleasantly solid, with excellent road manners and steering precision. Interiors are generally spartan, with an abundance of plastic that is one of Saturn’s less beloved hallmarks.
Toyota Matrix This nearly identical twin of Pontiac’s Vibe sports more elegant and understated styling. Still, the powertrain choices are the same: a 1.8-liter inline-four that makes 130 hp in fronheel-drive, 123 hp in all-wheel-drive and 180 hp in Toyota’s perky XRS fronrive package. Mix-and-match seat arrangementsincluding a flaolding front passenger seallow surprising load-carrying possibilities for a wagon this compact. An AC-power inverter is an interesting standard feature; the reverse-gear warning beeper inside the cockpit is a more annoying one.
Volkswagen Jetta & Passat wagons VW wagons are available as both compact Jetta models and mid-size Passat models. Taut handling and pristine Teutonic interiors are their hallmarks. Of most interest to enthusiast and commuter alike, however, is the smorgasbord of engine choices. In the Jetta, you can choose from a 2.0-liter inline-four making 115 hp, a peppy 1.8-liter turbo rated 180 hp, a 2.8-liter narrow-angle V6 making 200 hp and a unique 1.9-liter turbo direcnject diesel rated 90 hp. The Passat uses the 1.8-liter turbo and 2.8-liter V6 (curiously detuned to 170 hp and 190 hp, respectively), plus a remarkable new 4.0-liter W8 making 270 hp. Prices, of course, run the spectrum from below $20,000 to more than $40,000 for the all-wheel-drive Passat W8 4Motion. Keep in mind, though, that the 1.9-liter TDI Jetta approaches a 700 mile range for every tankful of diesel.
Volvo V40, V70 & XC wagons Volvo is one of the world’s great wagon specialists. Moreover, Volvo first responded to the SUV phenomenon by adapting a wagon, the XC70, to off-road conditions with an all-wheel-drive system. Volvo wagons come in both compact and mid-size iterations. The former, dubbed V40, employs a 1.9-liter inline-four enhanced to 170 hp for 2003. In the latter, the V70, there are now five engine choices: a 2.4-liter inline-five rated 168 hp; a 2.4 turbo rated 197 hp; a 2.5 turbo making 208 hp; the “T5” making 247 hp from 2.3 turbocharged liters; and, later in the year, a 300-hp mill for the V70R model. The XC70 makes do with the 197-hp turbo 2.4. Fronrive and all-wheel-drive drivetrains are available in the 70-series wagons, fronrive only in the V40. Safety is the Volvo byword, of course; and understated luxury is the prevailing interior motif. Now, with the prospects of a 300-hp V70R in the offing, supercar performance may be a Volvo wagon’s “next new thing.”
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