You were young once, remember? You were a little wild. You were going to live your own life, different from everyone else. You would travel the world, write the Great American Novel, date a movie star. Live fast. Die young. Leave a beautiful corpse.
And you would never, ever drive a station wagon, the ultimate symbol of throwing away all the dreams of your youth to become a boring middle-class suburbanite just like your parents.
Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that thanks to changing consumer attitudes and some talented young designers, the station wagon looks like it's on the brink of becoming a really hip vehicle. The bad news: All of your youthful aspirations probably remain unfulfilled - and no chic new vehicle architecture's going to help that.
It's no coincidence that a few of the sexiest concept cars at this year's North American International Auto Show were station wagons, and we're not just talking about those jacked-up, much-ballyhooed "crossover" vehicles such as theX5 - wagons masquerading as sport/utility vehicles. We're talking about sleek, car-like wagons like the Chevrolet Nomad and Citadel. And maybe even DaimlerChrysler's quirky PT Cruiser. These are vehicles that want to be cars, not trucks, and they're proud of it, thank you.
Of course no one dares call them station wagons.Corp. and DaimlerChrysler officially refer to their stunning Nomad and Citadel concepts as "crossover' vehicles. The Nomad designers refer to the 2-door wagon as "a new type of coupe." Whatever you want to call them - Europeans use names like "touring," "estates," "avants" and "shooting brakes" - station wagons are back with a vengeance.
They're some of the hottest vehicles in Japan (about half of all Saturn Corp. cars sold there are wagons) and everybody seems to be driving one in Europe.
In North America they may be the epitome of un-cool and "What we'd all be driving if the Brady Bunch were running the car business," as one WAW writer puts it, but to Europeans and Japanese they are hip and fashionable - the thinking man's SUV, because gasoline is $4 and $5 per gallon (see sidebars).
In Japan they are a sign of rebellion against the nation's workaholic, conformist culture. Buying one tells the world that you call your own shots, and that you just might tell the boss to stuff it because you're throwing all your gear in the wagon and goin' fishin.' In Europe, wagons have a gentrified image, in part derived from the fact that many hideously expensive cars such as Aston Martins and Ferraris have - for decades - been modified into "shooting brakes": high-speed, people-and-equipment transport to the quail shoot, the wine country, the next big takeover meeting.
And now the Europeans and Japanese are successfully selling their station wagons over here. Subaru and Audi get credit for starting the craze in the U.S., capitalizing on the SUV surge and the elevating American hunger for anything with all-wheel drive (AWD) capabilities. Until its wagon-cum-SUV Outback concept caught on, Subaru in particular was a dying brand in the U.S., with little to offer except utilitarian wagons fitted with good AWD systems.
But now even 2WD wagons are enjoying renewed sales - as long as they are upscale and have the right brand name.
Saab is introducing its first wagon in 40 years to the U.S. Andis re-entering the U.S. market with wagons, too, even though its $40,700 528i and $53,480 540i sport wagons will be priced very close to 6-cyl. and 8-cyl. versions of its new X5 crossover vehicle being built in South Carolina.
BMW expects to sell 4,000 wagons annually in the U.S., far more than the 1,100 to 2,300 it sold previous to 1995 -the last year a BMW wagon was offered here.
Rutherford, NJ-based auto analyst Susan Jacobs says BMW should do fine with both models because proposed sales volumes are low and the products will attract substantially different buyers. The X5, with sales of 20,000 to 25,000, will be the volume product and attract younger buyers looking for more functionality, while the wagon buyers likely will be older, she says.
"Within the last two years, this market has shown a resurgence," says Ed Hightower, 5-and 7-Series product manager. "We're really glad to be back here."
BMW left the segment when sales of its E34 5 Series "touring" dropped to 1,154 units, or only 4% of the wagon market. The company now hopes to grab a 7% share of the midsize luxury wagon segment, estimated by BMW to be about 53,000 units in 1998.
The 540i - dubbed by BMW as the fastest wagon in America - is offered with a V-8 and the company's clutchless manual Steptronic transmission. The 528i is equipped with a 2.8L inline 6-cyl. available with a 5-speed manual or automatic. The wagons are set to compete in the U.S. with the Audi A6 Avant, Mercedes E-Class wagon and the Volvo V70.
Ms. Jacobs says luxury station wagon sales were 49,783 in 1998, and predicts they will grow to 78,000 by 2000 and 93,000 by 2005, thanks to new products such as BMW 3-Series wagons and several crossover vehicles, including Audi's All Road.
Sales of luxury wagons and crossovers will increase not only because the entire luxury market is growing, Ms. Jacobs says, but also because they will be an attractive alternative to older buyers moving out of minivans and SUVs. Like so many of tomorrow's car buyers, affluent luxury buyers will be looking for vehicles that are less cumbersome than trucks and vans, but offer more utility than standard sedans.
One automaker product planner told WAW some months ago that when the SUV craze begins to wane, the two aspects of SUVs that buyers will want in their "alternatives" will be more functional load-carrying capability (as much a perception as a reality in many SUVs) and the foul-weather security imparted by AWD.
Already, there are signs of the market moving toward less-trucky alternatives. First, the success of the initial wave of passenger car-based, crossover-type vehicles can't be ignored. The Outback concept virtually saved Subaru.Motor Corp. and Motor Co. Ltd. filled the void in their product portfolios - vis-a-vis the domestic automakers and their headlock on SUV/light-truck segments - with the RAV4 and the
CR-V, respectively, and the market triumph of both models proves there's a considerable (and exploitable) middle ground between full-blown SUV and single-purpose passenger car.
Second, almost every concept vehicle and near-production model that automakers are showing has distinct crossover intention; now, there hardly are any total-SUVs, total-trucks or total-cars. Witness the January North American International Auto Show: For every single-purpose vehicle, there were three crossover-intenders (see story, p.65). Those include full-size trucks giving up bed capacity in order to offer more car-like interior amenities.
Finally, examine rooflines and ride heights. In the total-SUV era, everything rode high and exhibited a high, truck-like profile. Vehicles such as the Outback, the RAV4 and CR-V lowered both, but erred on the tall side. Now, station wagons will reduce ride heights and profiles practically back to normal, yet retain the passenger-carrying and utility (and in many cases, the AWD chassis) current buyers so covet in their SUVs and trucks.
North American auto companies, which are making a ton of money on trucks but are struggling to sell most of their cars, now seem to be scratching their chins and saying: "Hmmmm, maybe if we make a few good-looking station wagons, we'll be able to sell a few cars, too."
Truck-heavy- definitely appears to be testing the luxury wagon waters with its Citadel concept, and GM - already committed to building several high-ground-clearance crossovers on its next-generation MS2000 platform, (which may debut by the 2002 model year) - now also looks like it's eyeing some wagons, like the Nomad, that exploit more car-like stances.
"We expect by 2003,, -Chrysler and maybe even GM to offer "tall wagons" that are built off compact or midsize car platforms," says Michael Robinet, managing director of consultants at CSM Forecasting.
U.S. automakers may indeed be scrambling behind the scenes to make sure they don't lose any more turf in a market they invented.
GM Designers Christos Roustemis, age 30 (exterior), and Jeff Gale, 27 (interior), conceived the Chevy Nomad simply as a more utilitarian version of the Camaro. It's loosely based on that platform: rear-drive, with a big 5.7L Corvette V-8. Then they latched onto the "retro" theme (although they chafe at that term, too) and the legendary name and brand character of the Nomad.
The overwhelmingly favorable response to the concept has been a surprise to the designers - and GM. Even President Clinton lavished praise on the car during his whirlwind visit to NAIAS in early January.
Neither Mssrs. Roustemis nor Gale wants their creation referred to as a station wagon, but when prodded, they both admit they're too young to really harbor a lot of ill will toward such cars. Their iconography was displaced by a new symbol of the suburban middle class - the minivan - by the time they were old enough to start worrying in earnest about whether they would become like their parents.
In his younger days, "The minivan was the vehicle I wanted to rebel against seriously; the station wagon didn't affect me too much," Mr. Roustemis says.
"If I was in my mid-30s I might have a different perspective, but we've had minivans ever since I can remember," adds Mr. Gale, who is the son of DaimlerChrysler's top U.S. designer, Tom Gale.
Despite practical features such as fold-down rear seats, a retractable roof and an extended load floor, the Nomad clearly is designed to deliver strong performance.
A "small-block" V-8 powers the rear wheels, and it has a fully independent rear suspension. And even though it is heavily performance-oriented, Mr. Roustemis envisions the Nomad as a car for young families.
"Our research told us a lot of people are buying trucks not because they want trucks, but because they want something more functional than cars," he says. That made them think the time was right for a wagon, albeit one "with serious bad-ass undertones."
Because he is in his early 40s, DaimlerChrysler's Osamu Shikado's opinion of station wagons should be as tainted as any other baby boomers'. But he grew up in Japan, where wagons were unknown 25 years ago and now actually have a bit of a bad-boy image.
The aggressively styled Citadel certainly reflects a cheeky attitude of its own. Although Chrysler brags about Citadel's environmentally friendly gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain, the combined 323-hp output of its dual powerplants shows this car was not designed for the "Save the Whales" crowd.
Built off the Concorde floorpan and body-in-white, Chrysler says it features a "cab-rearward" design and has a relatively long wheelbase for its length - 125 ins. (318 cm) - because it is primarily a rear-drive vehicle. Since it is based on a current production vehicle, analysts say DaimlerChrysler very likely could have a toned-down version of the Citadel in the works.
Mr. Shikado also designed the exterior of Chrysler's larger-than-life and politically incorrect Chronos concept car. Both vehicles have dramatic shapes, short front overhangs and relatively long distances between the instrument panel and the front axle.
The Citadel is 3-ins. (8 cm) taller and has 2 ins. (5 cm) more ground clearance than a Chrysler Concorde. It has 20 cu. ft. (6 cu. m) of storage room behind the rear seats compared with 18.7 cu. ft. (5.7 cu. m) for the Concorde, 22.2 cu. ft. (6.8 cu. m) for the Plymouth Voyager and 18.8 cu. ft. (5.7 cu. m) for the Dodge Durango (with all the seats up).
Like the Chronos - and most other Chrysler concepts - the Citadel also features huge wheels: 19 ins. (48 cm) in the front and 20 in. (51 cm) in the rear. Interior design was led by Akino Tsuchiya, also of Japan, who created the look of a European luxury sedan with generous art deco touches. Lots of Porsche-like brushed aluminum and chrome accents completely banish any further suggestion of mundane sensibilities from the interior.
Station wagons started earning their unglamorous reputation - and their name - in the U.S. during the early 1900s, when they were used by rail companies as a means of transporting commuting suburbanites to and from railroad stations.
After World War I, more Americans were buying their own cars, and station wagon use by the railroads declined rapidly. But as more people moved to suburbia, car manufacturers saw a market for "station wagon" versions of sedans, and began offering them in the 1930s. The first mass-produced station wagon was a 1929Model A. It cost $650. By 1941 wagons were an industry staple. And by the 1950s they were the quintessential wholesome family vehicle - and that practical image was indelibly burned into the brains of millions of young baby boomers.
Station wagons originally consisted of wood bodies mounted on a steel frame, hence the "woody" moniker of some famous old models, which begat the cheesy fake wood grain that distinguished many forgettable designs of the 1960s and 1970s.
But as high-line European and Japanese automakers dive into the luxury and near-luxury market with a variety of upscale products ranging from about $25,000 to well over $50,000, "cheesy" no longer is the operative word.
In fact, the same style-conscious baby boomers who once rejected wagons for minivans and sport/utility vehicles now are gravitating back to them as they age and their children move out of the house. Many simply don't want to deal with the hassle of parking big 'utes' anymore. Others see luxury SUVs dotting every driveway and don't want to buy into the lemming-like mentality that many critics believe is the real fuel behind the staggering longevity of the SUV trend.
With that, witness the first stage of the station wagon's rebirth: Aging Yuppies reconsidering the once-despised transportation of their parents. Captivating concepts like the Nomad and Citadel may prove the much-maligned station wagon finally has arrived. - with Andrea Wielgat