The station wagon is dead, long live the station wagon

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

For several decades I've asked auto execs the same question: “What's the difference between a car and a truck?” My favorite answer was from a top Toyota sales chief: “If you can sell fruit out of the back, it's a truck.”

Honda would never call the Pilot a station wagon but for all intents and purposes, it is.

The debate has never ended, especially now that the terms “crossover” and “SUV” are used to categorize the top-selling “sit-high” cars. Michigan drivers will note their Jeeps and Subarus sold with these descriptors are currently listed as station wagons on the vehicles' registrations.

I find the industry and government terms for these vehicles lacking, and the marketers' terms more useful. A Mercedes executive once told me their station wagons are so named because they are designed for the homemaker to drive the office worker to the train station.

Popularity of the wagon's body style almost disappeared when the minivan was introduced in the 1980s. And then almost as quickly, the SUV replaced the minivan in the 1990s once automakers figured out how to domesticate the truck hardware on early SUV platforms, and please customers tired of the minivan's utilitarian image of suburban sprawl dwellers.

The newest SUV boom these days is in a crossover category called the “three-rower," a type of wagon marketed as an SUV and able to carry seven or eight passengers like a minivan. For 2019 there are at least 23 nameplates that cover this description. Three notable new entries are the Subaru Ascent, Volkswagen Atlas and a significantly refreshed Honda Pilot. These step into the duties that the station wagon used to perform. The fill a lifestyle need that Honda is calling the “family adventure” car. Sales of midsize SUVs rose in 2018, while passenger cars — you know, sedans and hatchbacks  — dropped.

In addition to the increased sales, adventurous families seem to have more money than typical car buyers. Prices of SUVs in similar size classes to passenger cars range from several thousand dollars for compact five-seaters to more than $12,000 for seven-seaters.

I like the new family adventure cars, er, light trucks. The Lincoln, Alabama, factory where the Pilot is built claims it to be a truck, as it does for the Ridgeline pickup and Odyssey minivan also built there. These two non-adventure family vehicles share much of the driveline and platform with the Pilot.

What makes these three-row crossover SUV machines different? For one, unlike minivans and station wagons, they have available four-wheel drive systems and higher ground clearance. According to Honda Pilot chief engineer Lara Harrington, who also headed the resurrected compact Passport SUV for 2019, “Some people will never drive off-road. But they prefer the ride height to see farther in traffic.”

Still, the off-road ability of the Pilot, which is to me essentially a minivan underneath, is near-Jeep in hardware and capability, uncompromised even if it's rarely used.

In addition, Honda refreshed the Pilot for 2019 in directions it thinks the three-rowers are headed: “Up front is a more masculine appearance,” adds Harrington, which the company added to the third-generation Pilot, which was introduced in 2016. Seems that its minivan-looking former styling was a turn-off to buyers — the Pilot ranks significantly behind the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer in popularity. The looks are also intended to point buyers at the Pilot's off-road ability.

Honda's Pilot is unique in the SUV segment in that it uses driveline hardware from its pickup, which includes a four-wheel drive system that doesn't rely on individual wheel braking to control the apportionment of torque to each wheel. Instead of aiding directional control of the vehicle on slick surfaces by braking a spinning wheel, it sends torque to the wheel with the most traction. That's typically better than most crossovers. Yet the Pilot also shares the smooth-riding, independent suspension of its Odyssey minivan.

The Pilot, similar to Ford's Explorer and Jeep's Grand Cherokee, offers three additional driving modes that are impressive compared to simpler all-wheel drive systems. The modes allow reduced chances of spinning a wheel in “snow” mode, and in two off-road modes, “rocks” and “sand," allow the driver the ability to spin wheels, which is normally an advanced driving technique for keeping momentum on deep sand.

So with the new aim toward family adventure, the capability of these three-rowers points toward the trend of adventure-seeking as part of the new American Dream, which means keeping the ability to carry a large family as did the tame suburban minivan, and without the rough edges and ride of a truck. This year, 2018, is the first in the U.S. to see vehicles labeled as trucks outselling cars, which may be significant, I think, in the future of the debate around “What is the difference between a car and a truck?”