Station wagons are back – in crossover disguise
Phoenix — The station wagon is undergoing a resurgence as a sexy, more nimble alternative to the common five-door SUV.
Just don’t call them station wagons.
Buick’s 2018 Regal TourX is the latest addition to the growing stable of Europe-inspired, all-wheel-drive wagons that have been recast by automakers as lower-riding crossovers. They hope to capitalize on a new generation of millennials tired of their parents’ lookalike SUVs — as well as an older generation of “wagon orphans” who are looking to buy again.
The German-built TourX, its sleek, five-door wagon body disguised with black fender and rocker-panel cladding familiar to SUVs, joins other body-cladded new entries in the market: the Audi Allroad, Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, and Volvo’s V60 and V90 Cross Country.
“We call it a TourX. It’s a crossover vehicle with car-like driving characteristics,” Doug Osterhoff, Buick chief of marketing for cars, said at the vehicle’s media launch here.
Audi, a pioneer in the crossover-wagon space dating back to the 1999 Allroad Quattro, calls its latest Allroad (introduced at the 2016 Detroit auto show) a “luxury wagon” with an “adventurous spirit.” Volvo dubs its Cross Country models, first seen in Detroit last year, “sport wagons.” And VW calls its Golf Alltrack, which debuted on dealer lots in 2017, the “ultimate vehicle for adventure seekers.”
In a consumer marketplace that covets five-door utility, the resurgent wagon hopes to capitalize on its own practical utility. The TourX’s 73.5 cubic feet of cargo space rivals some three-row SUVs, while offering better looks and more dynamic handling.
“SUVs are a generational thing,” says Osterhoff. “If you have three kids, you’re in a mid-size SUV. Kids who grew up in SUVs are looking for something different than they grew up in. Young millennials are open to vehicles like (the TourX) because they are active, and they have no preconceptions about wagons.”
Rebecca Lindland, senior auto analyst for Kelley Blue Book, agrees. “We are SUV Nation because baby boomers rebelled against their parents growing up in station wagons,” she says. “SUVs were an opportunity to express themselves differently. What’s interesting about wagons is we’re coming full circle — millennials’ version of rebelling is to drive a wagon.”
Family station wagon sales began their nose dive in the 1980s after the federal government doubled the fuel economy mandate on cars. Families gravitated instead to SUVs like the Jeep Cherokee which were subject to less-strict gas-mileage requirements. Mom and Dad aside, says Osterhoff, wagons have always had core lifestyle-buyers.
“A number of manufacturers left this market, like the Acura TSX or Saab wagons,” he says. “We did a lot of research and owners would hold on to these vehicles because they couldn’t find replacements that met their needs. They like the lower roof, the car-like handling — and first and foremost, the utility.”
Not surprisingly, most of the U.S. market’s wagons (the Subaru Outback is an exception) are made in Europe, where crossover-like wagons have proved resistant to the SUV onslaught. The TourX is built on the same bones as the Insignia Country Tourer, which is made by GM’s former German subsidiary, Opel.
“Utility vehicles have taken longer to grab hold in Europe, but SUV sales have been increasing there — from 3.9 percent in 2000 to an estimated 26.5 percent in 2017,” says IHS auto analyst Stephanie Brinley. “So far, the shift toward SUVs has had a worse impact on hatchbacks than wagons. Wagon sales have fluctuated between 9.3 to 10.7 percent share.”
Brinley does not see similar demand in the U.S. Indeed, she sees sales remaining steady at about 1.3 percent of market to address the needs of consumers “who have become more interested in an SUV, but still prefer the dynamics of a car.”
KBB’s Lindland says that the wagon segment — especially if populated by more vehicles like the $30,000-something TourX, which has received rave reviews — could grow. She also wishes everyone would please call them station wagons.
“I think Buick’s made a bold move,” she said. “I think it’s an opportunity to redefine the wagon class. It’s an SUV alternative. It’s for people who think outside the box.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.