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The American wagon beats a retreat

An anticipated surge in station wagon sales has failed to materialize, so are they destined for the dustbin of history?
The 2008 Dodge Magnum SRT is driven onto
Dodge has decided to cancel the slow-selling Magnum wagon.Jeff Haynes / AFP/Getty Images

Just a few years ago it seemed so clear — consumers, tired of gas-thirsty, hard-to-park, rough-riding SUVs would return to station wagons, a category of cars that had become increasingly attractive once stripped of the faux wood siding and 9 MPG big-block V8s from the 1970s.

Car makers rushed to meet the anticipated demand with a flood of new models like the Dodge Magnum, the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx and wagon versions of many European and Japanese sedans. 

But that fantasy was no more realistic than Chevy Chase eyeing Christie Brinkley in her Ferrari from his Wagonqueen Family Truckster in National Lampoon’s “Vacation.”

The anticipated wagon wave, alas, crashed ashore against the hard rocks of reality and is now receding. Sales in the segment collapsed from 250,000 cars per year when the Dodge Magnum was introduced in March 2004 (as a 2005 model year car) to just 120,000 this year, according to Steve Bartoli, vice president of global product marketing at Chrysler. The market could bottom out around 100,000 wagons per year, he predicts.

That’s why Dodge canceled the slow-selling Magnum in its recent round of production cuts, and probably why the acclaimed new Malibu is available only in a sedan body. Mazda dropped its Mazda6 wagon after only 1 percent of Mazda6 buyers chose that body style, and when Mercedes-Benz announced its new C-Class wagon the German automaker pointedly emphasized that the car is for world markets only — it will not be coming to the United States. Even wagon stalwart Subaru has discontinued its unpopular Legacy wagon to focus on the quasi-SUV Outback model.

“We could probably sell six or seven Outbacks for every Legacy wagon,” said Jeff Walters, director of sales operations for Subaru. “Our product planning guys just have not seen a demand for wagons.”

What happened? The plan would have worked if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and their dog, according to the carmakers. In truth it was the meddling by crossover SUVs that did in the anticipated wagon renaissance.

“People who have been station wagon users in the past have so many great choices today,” observed Robert Davis, senior vice president of product development and quality for Mazda North America Operations.  First among those choices is the new flood of car-like crossover SUVs, but Mazda also offers the small Mazda5 minivan as another option.

“If you look at what’s great about wagons, the great driving feel and the utility, crossovers have that and the command seating position,” Davis said. That raised seating position gives the driver a better view, which many find reassuring, he said — it gives them “an overall feeling of security.”

And putting a taller crossover body on a car chassis packs more interior volume into the same footprint on the road, Davis added, which gives you more utility in a taller vehicle.

Dodge, for example, rolled out its new Journey crossover SUV at the same time it announced the Magnum’s demise. “It has a higher [driver’s hip] point, which a lot of people appreciate,” observed Chrysler’s Bartoli, referring to the position of a driver’s hip when seated in a car. The higher the position, the better the view and accessibility for passengers.

Wagon sales have also been dinged by that reliable bogeyman the mortgage market, according to Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research. Wagon buyers tend to be older, and so ever since the real estate bubble starting losing air older car shoppers have been more focusing on housing issues (like higher loan repayments) rather than buying cars, he said.

Does this mean that companies such as Volvo and Subaru, which rely heavily on wagon sales, are in trouble? Probably not, because the remaining wagon buyers tend to be those companies’ customers. Also, both companies have participated in the shift to crossover SUVs and wagons that are dressed up to resemble SUVs, in the form of the Volvo XC70 Cross Country and the Subaru Outback.

The two companies, along with Volkswagen and Audi, represent pretty much the last of the wagon market. Mercedes-Benz continues to sell a handful of E-Class wagons in the United States, partly because the people who buy the cars are among the company’s best customers, so it pays to keep them happy, reports spokesman Rob Moran.

Traditional wagon powerhouse Volvo bucked the widespread retreat from the station wagon segment when it introduced its new V70 mid-sized wagon at the Los Angeles auto show in November.

The V70 has abundant improvements that should please wagon customers, including a new 3.2-liter, 235 horsepower inline six-cylinder engine and built-in booster seats for children who have outgrown infant seats, according to Leif Settergren, Volvo’s product manager for wagons and SUVs. With other wagon makers quitting the business, Volvo could even sell more wagons in the future, he said.

“We will probably take over some of those abandoned customers from some of our competitors,” Settergren predicted.

Subaru’s Outback will surely remain popular with its outdoorsy fans, but the company officially reclassified that vehicle as an SUV a couple years ago. So the company technically exited the wagon market when it dropped the Legacy wagon to focus on crossover SUVs, though it’s plain to see that the Outback is just a Legacy that sits higher from the ground.

Subaru has even added a monochromatic paint option to the Outback, which had previously only been available in two-tone paint that simulated the plastic cladding on the lower body of some SUVs. Subaru’s Walters says the company considers it “an SUV alternative.”

Another style factor that has driven some customers to SUVs from wagons is the popularity of dark-tinted privacy windows. Federal regulations permit tinted windows on SUVs, but not on station wagons, handicapping regular wagons in this department. 

With black glass, “you can use the glass as a styling cue,” remarked Mazda’s Davis. “I’m completely convinced that if the government let us put privacy glass in [our] wagons they’d sell a lot better than they do now.”

Now that shouldn’t be especially difficult.