Station Wagon Buyer’s Guide
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Starting from its humble beginnings carrying passengers and their luggage from railroad depots, the “station wagon” emerged as an incredibly versatile and easy to live with family vehicle. In recent years its status has diminished with the availability of cheap gas and drivers who chose to drive tipsy SUVs. Too bad. The station wagon offers much better fuel economy, is safer, is less costly to maintain and offers more usable family friendly cargo capacity.
Here is a review of all the station wagons we have tested and each one was a delight, unlike driving overweight, gas swilling SUVs that are so unsafe that the industry created a special safety category to evaluate them called rollover rate.
The definition of what is a station wagon has been blurred by the introduction of hatch backs, essentially a sedan with a fifth door instead of a trunk lid, and smaller mini-vans. We have included all of these under the station wagon heading because they are essentially oriented for carrying at least four people and a dog in comfort and with decent fuel mileage.
Best station wagons for the money:
Dodge Caliber, Kia Ronda, Subaru Impreza, Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix/ Mazda 5.
One to wait for: Volkswagen Jetta
Best Wagon to Carry Infants: Volvo V70, Saab 9-5
Best Dog Wagon: Kia Rondo, Saab 9-5
Favorites by price range:
$15,000 Scion xB, Suzuki SX4. Under $20,000 Subaru Impreza, Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix, Kia Rondo, Mazda 5
Under $30,000 Saab 9-3 Sport Combi
Under $40,000 Volvo V70, Subaru Outback
Expensive: Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5 Series
Mom’s favorite: The BMW 5 Series rides wonderfully and has exceptional brakes. The cargo capacity could be improved, but you can’t ignore its handling. Second choice would be the Volkswagen Passat. It looks good, but what it is best at is doing its job without any troubles. In the past I would have chosen the Volvo V70, but I find the base model underpowered and the T5 very expensive.
Dad’s favorite: The Kia Rondo is exceptional. It gets good gas mileage, holds everything, and is priced in the middle teens. Second choice would be the Pontiac Vibe. It is just big enough and with its exceptional gas mileage and handling and reworked styling and good resale, this is a tough wagon to pass up.
Not working female MBA’s view: The Mercedes wagon is so elegant and so cavernous it is my choice. The performance is exception and there is room for everything. Second choice would be the Saab 9-3. It gets wonderful fuel mileage and the seats and ride are both firm and comfortable. Plenty of power and room. Of course, the Audi A4 has the best interior and ride.
Working My Way Through College male’s view: The Subaru Legacy is what a station wagon should be. Handy, have good fuel mileage, and be able to go where the action is whether it is touting a bike, snow board, surfboard or four good friends. This wagon does it all. Second favorite, Mazda 3 or 5. Handle great, and need less filling and building open source computers and servers doesn’t make you rich. http://www.eracks.com/
The Audi A3 is around $26,000 and for that you get a small station wagon that has excellent driving feel and good safety features, but little rear seat legroom. There are two models with the proven and perky 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 200 horsepower as our favorite. Quite fast with the standard six-speed manual, it is even quicker, and more expensive with Audi’s sequential-shift automated gearbox. The latter takes a while to get used to as it rev-matches on gear changes and the exhaust makes a little pop every time it does. Gas mileage was very good at 26 mpg on premium. You can also order the wagon as a Quattro with a 3.2-liter 250-horespower V6 and Stronic transmission. Stay with the base model station wagon and be rewarded with better handling and a lot better gas mileage as the larger averaged 21 mpg.
Safetywise the A3 has front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, antilock brakes and stability control. You must order the optional seat-mounted side airbags for the rear passengers. Crash scores were good. The interior is much understated compared to those in other Audis. The cargo area is 56 cubic feet and the floor is fairly flat and the liftover height is low. Driving the A3 reveals a strong chassis and very good steering. Rough surfaces are felt, but they don’t mar your ride or conversation. It is easy to park, provides plenty of punch, and is at home in town as on the highway. Grade B-. Reason, interior room, expensive options, resale.
Just a tad larger than the A3, the A4 Audi wagon has a many of the same problems as the A3 in that rear seat room is tight. On the other hand the interior is beautiful and the ride less strident than the shorter wheelbase A3. The $32,000 price for the A4 is dear especially considering the powertrains are essentially the same as those in the A3. You can have the base 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 with 200 horsepower or a V6. All of the Avants come with Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive. The transmission choices are a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Gas mileage was 22 mpg with the base engine and automatic transmission. With the CVT on the sedan we averaged 38 mpg using cruise control and abiding by the speed limit, sort of.
Safety wise there are antilock brakes, traction control, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. We highly recommend you order the optional rear seat-mounted side airbags if you have children. Crash scores were good. The interior is beautiful. The seats firm, the controls feel solid, and only the GPS needs to be rethought. Cargo space isn’t too bad with 59 cubic feet available. The A4 is easy to park, has good visibility, and is peppy. Grade B. Reason, expensive options and lack of rear seat foot room.
Well, this is elegance and enjoyability in one nice wagon, but with a price tag that won’t leave $50,000 alone, there is really the need to love this car more than we did. Although the A6S sedan is one of our very favorite cars, the Quattro wagon loses due to its engine selections and lax handling. The 3.1-liter V6 with its 255 horsepower is plenty enough but it still could use a touch more when turning the all wheel drive powertrain. Look for fuel mileage on the minus side of 20 mpg.
Safety items include antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags with must order rear-seat side airbags optional. Crash scores were good. The interior is comfortable and beautiful to the eye and touch. The Multi Media Interface vehicle management system is not our favorite way to deal with handling the cars entertainment, communication, and navigation functions, as you have to take your eyes off the road to activate them. With practice this may not be a problem.
Driving the Audi is relaxing and, for lack of a better word, soft. It reacts quickly when provoked, and handles well if you don’t mind a bit of leaning. The A6 is a lady at all times. If you equip this wagon with the V8 you have a totally different behaving vehicle, as the engine is notably stronger and more willing to play. Either way, this is an expensive wagon that has but one concern. The major problem with the A6 is that it does not offer much more cargo room than the much less expensive A4, can be equipped with the same engine, and unless you need another couple of inches of head and foot room in back, there isn’t much difference. The Audi A4 is more nimble and costs about $10,000 less. Go figure. Grade B-. Cost, cargo capacity, complexity.
Not here yet, this BMW is probably going to cost at least $25,000 and up depending on the engine choices. As with all BMW station wagons, handling is a greater concern to the company than interior room. As such, expect a cute, sporty wagon with limited cargo carrying capacity. The interior is typical of smaller BMWs with great feel and the ride feel is excellent. Our grade: Incomplete
BMW 3 Series
BMW has captured the market on well behaved driving machines and they know well that even with the competition offering better deals they can still get top dollar. The 3 Series wagon is small, tightly made, and refined. It also has an interior that just does not equate with the cost of the vehicle. The BMW 328i and the all wheel drive version, the 328xi, have a based 3.0-liter inline-6 with 230 horsepower. It is a good engine. However, the 335i with its two turbochargers is a great engine and produces 300 horsepower that can be matched to the standard six-speed manual or six speed automatic as an option. What is most remarkable is that both engines get about the same fuel mileage of around 22 mpg. That is a lot of fun for the gallon.
Safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, dynamic brake control, run-flat tires, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbag, with an interesting stability control system. This unit periodically wipes the brake rotors when it is raining and tightens the brake pads against the discs if the driver abruptly lifts off the throttle. This makes for shorter stops. Crash test scores were good. The seats are stiff and supportive and the visibility good. The gauges are a bit difficult to read due to the small font. The headlights have good range, but the interior lighting is weak. If you opt for the navigation system you must get the iDrive interface. This unit takes time to learn so do it in the driveway before you head into traffic. Cargo capacity is 61 cubic feet.
Driving is what the BMW is all about. We prefer the base engine in a station wagon to save money and probably your driver’s license over the optional 300 horsepower version. The steering is terrific, the suspension a bit sturdy over rough pavement, but a wonder on curves, and the brakes are wonderful. The down side is that the base price is $35,000 and with options $40,000 is a possibility. A lot of money to pay for a car with a limited cargo area, but you will probably get that back at resale. Grade A-. Cargo capacity, cost.
BMW 5 Series
For $54,000 you can get the BMW 5 Series wagon and we recommend it over the smallish 3 Series if you can afford the difference. The base model is the 528i with a 230-horsepower inline-6. The highly regarded optional engine is the twin-turbo 300-horsepower inline-6. There is also a 360 horsepower version. You have your choice of either a six speed manual or automatic and BMW also offers an all wheel drive option. Note that the all wheel drive feature does make the car corner differently and it feels less tossable than the less expensive, faster, more economical, and better handling rear wheel drive model. Hint, hint.
Standard safety equipment includes stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags and front-and-rear side-curtain airbags. You must always order the optional rear-seat side airbags and we recommend the departure system that alerts the driver by shaking the steering wheel when the car starts to leave its land. Add to that a night version system and you have a good case. Crash scores were okay, they could have been better. Night lighting is excellent, the interior lighting is average. Visibility is good in all directions, but the rear view mirrors could be larger. The interior is bland, but highly usable. The iDrive continues to be a source of irritation. It isn’t that it cannot be mastered, but that it isn’t needed and it does take away your concentration as you mouse your way through the menu. There is adequate cargo and rear legroom space. As in all station wagons the rear seats fold down. Cargo capacity behind the rear seats is 34 cubic feet. Not all that great, but if you get the must have automatic tailgate opener it even moves the cargo cover for you. This is a terrific system and a must have. Driving the 5 Series is rewarding and gas mileage is about 22 mpg on premium with the 300 horsepower engine. It begs to be played with and responds immediately. A great driving car at a price. Grade B+. Price, cargo space, complexity.
This is the least expensive station wagonish car we tested at about $10,000. It seats four adults, has a simple interior and the four cylinder, 1.6 liter engine does its best. Gas mileage isn’t as great as one would think for such a light, small engined car as we got 27 mpg in mixed driving probably due to the fact that motor has to work quite hard with a family onboard. You get what you pay for. We recommend the Chevrolet Cobalt instead or the HHR. Grade D. Resale, performance.
There is a lot to like with this $16,000 and up station wagon from Chevrolet. It has 63 cubic feet of cargo room, a nice double stack shelf for even more utility, and there is even storage below the level floor for smaller items. The passenger seat folds flat so you can get a six foot or longer step ladder in the HHR and there are plenty of storage bins as well. This is a very truck looking station wagon, but the good part is that there is plenty of passenger room for four adults and good handling, to boot. The two engine choices are the 149-horsepower, 2.2-liter four and a 175-horsepower, 2.4-liter four. They are quite different in performance so you need to drive them both. We would go with the bigger unit. Driving the HHR reveals that it isn’t a sports car, but other than that it is very user friendly. The ride is smooth and quiet and only the brakes bothered us when fully loaded. They don’t provide good feedback. You can even order the HHR SS with a 260-horsepower turbocharged engine. Gas mileage with the four speed automatic transmission was about 23 mpg in mixed driving. Safety features include OnStar, ABS on most models, and a must have Enhanced Safety Package. You can get traction control with the automatic transmission. Crash scores were good.
The interior of the HHR is simple and only the placements of the window buttons are a concern. The seats are average in comfort and the car easy to park with good visibility to the sides, but not the rear. Grade B-. Braking, resale, performance when fully loaded.
Chrysler PT Cruiser
A real bargain, the retro looking PT Cruiser at $15,000 is as useful as a rounded off box can be. The ride is good and the resale constant. Unfortunately, not enough has been done to modernize this Chrysler over the years. The engine isn’t swift, the fuel mileage only average, and the acceleration when loaded is boring with the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and its 150 horsepower. Opt for the turbocharged version and get 180 horsepower, but the PT still struggles to break 20 mpg in mixed driving. Safety wise the PT has front and side airbags and some models has ABS. The crash scores are good. The interior is large, but the seats lack support and the basic to basics design is easy to use, but not ascetically pleasing. The cargo space is generous with over 64 cubic feet of available and a clever storage shelf making it even more usable. The PT is front wheel drive and the turning radius is large, the ride borders on soft, and the car reacts good to steering corrections. Grade C. Acceleration, interior design, night lighting, rear visibility.
Chrysler’s Pacifica is a very pricey wagon that is probably going to be discontinued. Good deals are probably going to be in the offering, but we simply don’t find this vehicle to be nearly as good as the one that should replace it, the Journey. Grade Incomplete
This is an underrated family station wagon and it starts at under $15,000. Forget what the car magazine writers say, they are far removed from the typical buyer of this useful vehicle. You can order the caliber with four wheel drive and even a 285 turbocharged engine. We recommend the 2.0 optional engine over the based 149 four cylinder version. You can also get an R/T model with a 2.4-liter engine and 172 horsepower. The high-performance Caliber SRT4 has the 285 horsepower engine. The 2.0 model has a CVT that gave us over 24 mpg in mixed driving.
Crash scores were very good with the standard with head-protecting side curtain airbags for all outboard passengers. Also standard is a knee-blocker airbag for the driver. You must order the optional front-seat-mounted side airbags and stability control on models that don’t offer it. You can get five people in the Caliber with an abundance of headroom. The rear seats fold flat and there is about 48 cubic feet of cargo space. The dash and interior is shinny plastic and boldly colored in most cases. There is a ChillZone, a cooled beverage box in the glove box area. The air conditioning cools it, but not all that well. The seats are comfortable, but there is no forgetting that this is an inexpensive vehicle. The engine is noisy and there is never an abundance of thrust. The visibility is very good and the Caliber is easy to park. Grade B-. Performance, comfort
Very well priced at under $24,000, the Magnum is spacious and has a good variety of features. However, it will probably be removed from the Dodge line-up. Regardless, there are an abundance of used ones out there. Be aware that the wagon has huge blind spots and very limited visibility due to its small windows. A good car for the price. Grade Incomplete
Ford Flex is coming shortly and is big. Look for prices in the near $30,000 range. It looks like a winner. Grade Incomplete
Ford Taurus X
The Taurus X looks like a winner with a variety of options such as a power lift gate and a Sync system that makes for hands free phone and radio control use. The 3.5-liter V6 makes 263 horsepower running through a six-speed automatic and powering the front wheels. Fuel economy is listed in the 16-24 range. We have not tested the X. Grade: Incomplete.
With a price tag of nearly $40,000 well equipped this is a cute wagon with a touch of elegance. However, it has very little interior space and even with the standard all wheel drive there is little to justify the price. This model will probably be discontinued. However, it is so adorable it just might be the best boutique wagon made. Grade D. Cost, small cargo space, resale, maintenance.
The Kia Rio is priced about $13,000 and isn’t worth it. Buy the terrific Kia Rondo instead and have more room, more performance, and a better handling vehicle for $3000 more. Kia Rondo is absolutely a great family vehicle. It is easy to maneuver, drives briskly, and has room for seven. It is fairly short and has excellent visibility. This is the biggest bargain in stationwagon/minivandom. They are selling for under $20,000 and are a hoot to drive with the optional engine. Resale is always a question with the Kia, but if you keep it until the ten year warranty expires it shouldn’t matter. The front wheel drive Rondo has a base 2.4-liter inline-4 with 162 horsepower and a four-speed automatic transmission. The optional V6 displaces 2.7 liters, makes 182 horsepower and has a five-speed automatic transmission. We got over 22 mpg with the larger engine.
Safety items include antilock disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags and stability control and crash scores were good. The interior is versatile and even has an optional third row of seats, although we little room for adults in the rear. You can scoot the second row seat forward to help gain access to the third row. Cargo capacity is good and it is easy to load. The seats split and fold flat. The ride is very good for what it is. You have excellent visibility and feel in control at all times. Handling is what you would expect from a taller vehicle, but there is a feeling that a larger set of tires and firmer shocks would make a Mazda 5 type handler. Grade A-. Reason resale.
Again, for just a little bit more money that the MSRP of $16,000 you can own the Rondo so why bother with the Spectra? Well, it is comfortable to drive, has that great Kia warranty, and has a great deal of storage. However, the safety scores weren’t that great and only the fuel economy would make us take note as we average 26 mpg in mixed driving. The Spectra has over 18 cubic feet of storage space and the interior is simple and user friendly. Grade C-. Resale, safety scores, slow to respond automatic transmission.
With a price tag of nearly $18,000 for a base version, this is a very sporty station wagon that is more show than practical. It has a lot of pep, excellent handling, and is very nicely outfitted. However, there is no getting around the fact that this hatchback is small and not nearly as fuel efficient as that size would imply. We got 23 mpg with the five speed automatic 2.3 liter 156 horsepower engine. However, the Mazda 3 does deliver performance that makes it a rival for the far more expensive Audi 3. There are a variety of option packages but essentially they have little to do with practicality.
Safety wise the Mazda is disappointing as most of the important features are options such as stability control and side airbags. Test scores were not good so make sure you order every safety option. The inside has a nice look, far more impressive than its price would have you believe. The horn is pathetic, though, and the radio reception weak. The dash dials are easy to read, although they do have a small font, night lighting is just average, headlights are so-so, and there is clearly a need for a little more room for the dead pedal. The heading and cooling are very good and the seats and headroom are excellent. The steering wheel telescopes and has a good grip. Cargo space is 31 cubic feet and it is very easy to load.
Driving is what a Mazda is about and they have some of the best chassis and suspension components this side of BMW. What Mazda really needs is an engine with enough poke to take advantage of their sensational handling. The Mazda 3 corners without much lean, the engine is responsive, and the fun is clearly in the journey. Grade C+ Fuel mileage, rear leg room, overly complicated controls, safety.
This $18,000 Mazda 5 is simply terrific. Although we had limited seat time in this small SUV or tall station wagon, this Mazda, as all Mazda’s, handles extremely well and if both fuel friendly and fun to drive. However, it could use more power. The interior is plain with electroluminescent gauges and a user friendly navigation system that uses a touch screen to spice things up a bit. The five speed automatic does the best in can with the 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and its 153 horsepower. That is both good news and bad. The good news is we averaged 24 mpg on regular fuel. The bad news is that the engine just does not have the torque to handle a full family and luggage on mountain trips.
Safety comes in the form of antilock disc brakes, front side airbags and three-row side curtain airbags with stability control an option worth ordering on any tall vehicle. The tailgate is easy to use with a low liftover. The side sliding doors are not difficult to open and the seats, front and rear, are all comfortable. There is a small third row, but it is for children only. The second row captain’s chairs make getting to the third seat easier. The Mazda 5 has 44 cubic feet of usable cargo space. On the road the Mazda is a marvel of handling prowess. The steering is terrific and the 5 clings to the road. It has a small turning radius that makes U-turns in the middle of neighborhood streets possible. Visibility is excellent in all directions. With a little more power this would be the best station wagon you could buy. Indeed, we actually won a driving for time competition with one because it was so predictable. What is most remarkable is that the Mazda 5 is almost the same price as the hatchback Mazda 3 and offers far more room, but not nearly the sporty nature or quick acceleration. Grade A-. Engine output.
Mercedes Benz E Class
You can actually order the Mercedes Benz E Class with an AMG package is you really want to create an oxymoronish sports station wagon for $90,000. Stick with the $53,000 version and you will find it just as willing to serve and can pass a gas station.
The ride is firm, but never pounding, and the handling is much better than one would think looking at the size of this rig. Of course, there are many less expensive station wagons, but few have so much interior room and quiet elegance. The electronics are overly complicated and the brakes still lack the feel we like, but they work very well. The Mercedes E350 and E550 are the two major versions and the former has plenty of punch. Seating wise you can have a third row, but it faces outward, which is unique in this day and age. The AMG version has 507-horsepower and is probably the fastest station wagon on the planet. The BMW wagon and the Audi wagon are the only ones in this price range and neither offers the many variations and useful interior cargo space as the Mercedes. However, both handle better should that be your goal. The E350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 268 horsepower and we averaged 21 mpg. The V8 E550 version yielded just 16 mpg even through it is sports car fast. The 4Matic has a five speed automatic transmission and is very efficient and seamless.
Safety wise the Mercedes gets stability control, antilock brakes, side airbags, full-length curtain airbags, a system that anticipates crashes called PreSafe that tightens safety belts and snugs the brakes automatically. Crash scores were good. Visibility is excellent with analog gauges are easy to read, but the COMMAND system is still complicated as it controls many features that a simple button would be better to use. The rear seat has an abundance of room and splits 60/40 to find a whopping 69 cubic feet of cargo space ready to serve. The design of the Mercedes is classic in that there is nothing glaring at you. It is all subtle and of noteworthy quality. The seats are firm but comfortable, the interior storage areas abundant and large, and the levers and switches feel solid. The doors shut with authority and the night lighting is good. On the road the wagon is not meant for flinging and is more comfortable on the highway. A nice car for that long vacation and clearly capable of taking home most anything the antique dealer has on sale.
Mercedes Benz R-Class
This is a strange duck since it is priced lower than the Mercedes wagon and is nearly as handy for about $42,000. To say that this is the best bargain in the Mercedes fleet would be an understatement. If you want you can even get the R-Class with a diesel engine, and they are good diesel engines. The base model and that word really don’t seem fit to describe the R-Class with its long, long length that even dwarfs the large Mercedes E-Class wagon. This added length makes leaves the third row passengers with plenty of comfort. The second row seats can be moved forward or backwards to allow for easier access to the third row, too. This is really a six passenger wagonish vehicle, although there is a small optional third seat for one. Outside of the size, the large side doors are the most notable exterior features. Before you try and slide the R into that tight space better make sure you have room to open those doors. You can order this sort of mini-van with two wheel drive or 4Matic, but don’t expect much over 17 mpg with either version and worse in town despite the seven speed automatic transmission.
Safety features include airbags most everywhere, stability control, rollover sensor, ABS, active front head rests. The dash is nicely laid out with easy to read gauges, comfortable seats, and 85 cubic feet of cargo room. Visibility to the rear is limited by the sharply dropping rear roofline. Driving the R-Class takes a while to get used to do its extremely length and weight. The ride is quiet and smooth and you can even challenge a few corners without as much lean as one would expect. There is an optional air suspension system that might be a consideration if you haul heavy loads. The R doesn’t have a problem entering a high speed highway if you give it a little while to gain momentum. The problem we had was trying to understand what the R did that a minivan or the Mercedes E Class wagon couldn’t do better. Grade C. Visibility, fuel mileage, doors, resale.
MINI Cooper Clubman
You can’t get more adorable than the MINI Cooper Clubman. An elongated version of the MINI, the Clubman costs about $23,000 and can hold four adults and a few pieces of luggage. What you gain in cargo space and a third door does not affect the handling of the MINI and actually makes it ride nicer on the highway due to its three inch longer wheelbase to hold the nine inches plus longer body. The rear access door to the second row of seats is only on the right hand side and it does not have an exterior handle. You open the front door first, like the Saturn couple of yesteryear. The rear view is adorable with two center-opening doors. It takes a while to master this unique feature due to their small size, but it works and is much easier to open and closer than a regular hatch. Cargo space is still timid at a bit over 32 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat.
The Cooper S version has a twin-scroll turbocharged to puff air into the 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder. The result is 172 horsepower and a very peppy ride. The standard engine has 118 horsepower. You can get a six speed automatic transmission as an option and we prefer it to the six speed manual. The automatic can be controlled by steering wheel flippers and it is easier to live with in daily driving. The Clubman’s front wheels carry an electrical power regeneration braking system that recharges the battery when the brakes are used. This saves the need for the alternator to run when the MINI is accelerating. An interesting touch, but to us it looks like an expensive repair as the miles mount. Gas mileage for this light car is excellent with 32 mpg easy to maintain. Look for less with the automatic and about 26 for the turbocharged version.
Safety items include antilock disc brakes, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, corner brake control and stability control. The Clubman is too new to have reported crash tests. The interior is a strange place with many features that defy logic such as window controls on the dash. The overly complex stereo system, hard to rear gauges with their small font and the speedometer mounted in the middle of the dash are all part of the MINI charm. But we could live without all of them. The air and heating controls and a chore to find and are all poorly positioned. The air conditioning had its fans full trying to cool the interior with its full length sunroof. There are a lot of small storage areas, including one in the center arm rest.
The ergonomics don’t work for use, but the interior look good. On the road the stereo, heating and air conditioning require more effort than a simpler system does. The steering wheel has ancillary controls for the cruise control and stereo and I don’t know what we would do without them as the dash mounted versions were too difficult to locate without taking your eyes off the road. Indeed we have never been in a car with so many non-intuitive controls outside of the Land Rover/Range Rover. And, ladies, your pant leg can get caught on the difficult to maneuver seat adjustment lever when exiting the MINI.
There is good room in front and the steering wheel telescopes to provide a more comfortable driving position with those with shorter arms. The seats are comfortable, but over long trips you may wish for a less sporty perch. The Clubman’s passenger-side access door is a real plus and it makes getting in and out of the back seats much easier. The cargo area is nearly 33 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat. With them up look for less than 10 cubic feet. The clamshell rear doors are very solid and automatically open with the remote. The Clubman is a very solid car and well worth the $1000 premium over the MINI at under $20,000. Take it up a notch and notice that the S model with its many standard handling features and turbocharged engine adds a significant $3500 more to the bottom line. We found the non-turbo model just fine.
The MINI is all about driving and looks. It has both, but if you order the S version be prepared to take a pounding on rough roads due to the sporty suspension and wide tires. We actually liked the regular version of the MINI better. That being said, you feel like you slip on the MINI rather than sit in it. It is fairly quick, very responsive, and is truly a driver’s car. Even going to the corner store is fun with the S MINI Cooper. The engine is ready for you instantly and the steering wheel mounted gear selectors are well placed.
There is torque steer living here, but the turbocharged engine, awesome handling, and unique look make it an interesting choice when looking for a wagon. But realistically, the hard suspension, low profile tires, and limited interior room take away its utility. Darn cute and a big guy when it comes to driving canyons, the Clubman is a better choice than the MINI, but it is still a mini. Rear visibility is also limited by the split rear window and the small rear view mirrors. This is a fun mobile that is adorable and lively. Radio reception is weak, but the stereo has a fairly good sound to it. However, the negatives make it more a couple’s car than a family station wagon. Grade B-. Ride, rear visibility, ergonomics.
A bargain, and a handy one at that, the Pontiac Vibe starts at under $16,000 and has been restyled and retuned to be even a better choice for families looking for a station wagon. The seating front and rear is quite spacious, the ride pleasing, and the engine spunky. You even get a large cargo area and a higher driving position than most wagons. Although a fraternal twin to the Toyota Matrix, the Vibe is a sharper handler than the Toyota and more attractive since its recent face lift. Available as front or all wheel drive, the Matrix has a very prompt 2.4-liter four-cylinder optional engine providing 158 horsepower or a standard 1.8-liter inline-4 cylinder making 132 horsepower. The GT version has the larger engine and a five speed automatic transmission, one more than the base model. The interior has much easier to read gauges and more comfortable seats than previous models. The 2009 model is much better than previous ones in many ways, but mainly due to the interior design. It is clean, easy to use, and there are lots of small storage areas and an organizer that makes it handy to carry groceries. The cargo space could use tie downs, but the rear seats do fold down for hauling longer packages. There is over 49 cubic feet of room.
Safety items include ABS, stability control, and airbags front and side. OnStar is also available. This is a car that really handles well. If you get the GT package you are going to own a very sporty ride. However, we recommend you spend a while exploring the virtues of the base version if you are just looking for good family transportation. Look for gas mileage in the 27 mpg range and low maintenance costs. Grade A- Reason, resale. (The Matrix has better resale.)
One of our favorite station wagons, the Saab 9-3 is a tightly built, ready to run, station wagon with a sporty flair and the ability to be as much utility as sports cars. The ride solid with excellent steering, superior seats, and not much turbo lag to mar your fun. The 9-3 is going to be available as an all wheel drive model this year, but the front wheel drive is so good it is almost unneeded. The big boy is the Turbo X with a 280-horsepower turbocharged V6. The X is only available in black with lots of bits and pieces to make them look even more evil. However, sticking to the base,
$29,250 model, you still find yourself owning an attractive and potent wagon with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder that makes 210 horsepower and a six-speed manual gearbox or optional five-speed automatic with a manual mode.
Safety wise the 9-3 has antilock disc brakes, stability control, OnStar, active head rests, full-length side curtain airbags and the crash scores were good. The interior is understated and dark. The gauges are easy to read and there are many nice features such as a button that blacks out the dash lights at night. There is good leg room in front and back, but the real treat is the split rear seats that fold down to reveal 72 cubic feet of cargo room. The ignition switch is still in the center console areas and there are a lot of storage areas.
The turbo is eager to play and with the manual transmission it borders on illegal with the ability to pass other cars on two lane highways as simple as a downshift and peddle prod. Unfortunately, the shift linkage isn’t as positive as we like. Stick with the automatic and enjoy the ride. Over rough roads the Saab shows its age as it reacts strongly to bumps, especially in corners. However, on the highway it is an exceptional cruiser with gas mileage about 25 in mixed driving. There are better station wagons out there, but for the money the Saab is fun and useful. Grade B-. Reason: Resale, ride quality, repair costs, premium fuel.
A few years back we strongly considered buying a Saab 9-5, but the $38,000 price tag was too difficult for us to justify. In the year since the Saab has increased in price and is essentially the same. That isn’t bad, you get great seats, plenty of cargo room, and a well laid out interior. On the other hand, there are a lot of these used that offer the same features as the new models and with the sharp depreciation it makes buying one of these models new one based on emotion and self-esteem rather than logic. The 9-5 has nearly the same interior space as the considerably less expensive Saab 9-3, and both have standard front wheel drive. The SportCombi 9-5 has a turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-4 with 260 horsepower. A five-speed manual is standard and a five-speed automatic optional. Look for gas mileage in the 22 mpg range on premium.
Safety wise you get antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, OnStar, active head rests and front-seat side airbags. Crash scores were very good. The interior is straight forward with little to distract the driver. The gauges are easy to read, the night lighting average, and the visibility excellent. A comfortable car with room for five and plenty of power. It can corner well and the steering is light. Brakes have a very good feel. There is a touch of torque steer, but it is much better than most front wheel drive turbocharged cars. Grade C. Reason: Resale, premium fuel, lack of refinement, repair costs.
This is a box on wheels. Even the under $16,000 price tag can’t offset the love it or hate it styling. We happen to love it and the good fuel mileage and exceptional cargo space combined with the low price make it a desirable station wagon for those who can dig the styling. (Use of “dig” term used as hint to our demographic group.)
There are so many options you can’t help but find yourself spending hours separating your needs from your wants, but even a base Scion is well loaded with features. We don’t really like the center mounted gauges, but at night the glare isn’t as bad as those mounted in front of the driver. The xB has been redone and it is better in every way. The engine is a very powerful 2.4-liter inline four cylinder that makes 158 horsepower. The standard five speed manual is okay, but we prefer the four-speed automatic with automanual. The extra weight and increased engine size means that gas mileage is only about 25 in mixed driving. The new Corolla does better with nearly the same set-up, which goes to show you the impact of gearing and aerodynamics.
Safety features include antilock brakes, stability control, traction control, front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Unlike the xD, there are no active front head restraints. The gauges layout needs rethinking and is the main weakness of this model.
There is a remarkable 70 cubic feet of room in the back of the xB with the split rear seats folded flat. And, it is easy to load with large rear doors and an easy to open and close hatch. The xB is not the vehicle to take to the races and the body lean is significant, but the steering and brakes are quite good for the price segment. This is easily the best station wagon for space, gas mileage, and price. Grade A-. Reason dash layout, cornering.
With prices starting under $15,000 the xD would seem like a real bargain. It is far more useful than the xA model it replaces, but it can’t compete with the larger xB which offers far more for about $1000 more. There is an abundance of options on the xD that truly make it a unique vehicle. It also comes without much cargo space and a strange dash layout. Built on the Yaris chassis, the xD has an excellent 128-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes if truly playful. It is very quick and economical with a recorded 27 mpg in mixed driving.
The features are everything once you get past the sporty performance. The audio choices are overwhelming and the box like shape of the Scion makes for a nice acoustic playground. You can also order a GPS and get an easy to read screen to scroll through all the choices from play lists to singer. The legroom in front and back is limited and there isn’t much cargo space behind the back seat, especially when outfitted with the optional stereo equipment speakers and subwoofer. The stereo comes with a Pioneer stereo with CD/MP3 player and an auxiliary MP3 jack and a dedicated iPod port. The xD even has mood lighting. Don’t even consider buying an xD without spending a couple of months studying the dealer installed options. They really have to be seen to be believed.
Safety items include antilock brakes with brake assist, stability control, traction control, front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head rests. The interior is dominated by a strange speedometer tachometer pod that needs to be experienced to be confused. The seats are short and padding is sparse. This is a car for the young at heart and seat. Be careful when adjusting the steering wheel as it drops suddenly when the lock is pushed. Real fast. Cargo capacity is modest at just under 36 cubic feet, but the low liftover makes loading very easy. The ride quality is surprisingly good, but than the Yaris, and the brakes are good. The steering is too light, but that makes parking very easy. Grade C. Reason: Cargo space, instruments, seats, pricing.
There is an all new Forester available and we have not been able to test it. Regardless, the old model is a superior SUV with standard all wheel drive and great gas mileage. We averaged 24 mpg in mixed driving. But the reality is that the Forester is more SUV than station wagon. Consider the Subaru Legacy or Impreza instead. Grade incomplete
This $17,500 wagon has a new face and a lot of new features that makes if more mainstream and easier to live with as a station wagon. The all wheel drive Impreza looks more like a Toyota than a Subaru, but what counts is inside and under the hood. The station wagon is larger than the last model and roomier. The wheelbase has been stretched four inches and with that the once tiny Impreza wagon is now much larger and family friendly. The 2.5-liter engine comes with a manual or automatic. Either one is easy to operate, but the shift linkage on the Impreza and the high clutch take up point make driving in heavy traffic a chore. The 170 horsepower engine doesn’t leave too much power under the pedal past 70 mph for passing due to the four speed automatic’s limited gear selections and the weight of the all wheel drive unit. Fuel mileage is about 21 mpg in mixed driving.
Major safety comes in the form of antilock brakes and side curtain airbags so we recommend getting the optional rear wheel drive brakes and stability control. The interior is very staid with easy access to the front and rear seats and an easy to lift rear hatch. The ride is fairly soft and it is quiet. The seats still have a jack like control unit that is difficult to operate since you essential have to lift your own weight as well as that of the seat. The rear cargo area can hold wide items and the heater is very fast to reach temperature.
The Impreza is not demanding and doesn’t surprise you. It does its job with good crash scores and a gentle touch. Although not as distinctive as previous models, it is much more refined and has a quality feel. The gauges are easy to read, everything seems well designed, and there is always that tempting price to consider. This is one of the least expensive, family oriented station wagons you can buy. Grade C+. Reason, gas mileage, acceleration, seat adjustments.
If you can afford a $100 more a month get the Subaru Outback instead of the Impreza due to its large cargo area and more refined ride due to its longer wheelbase. The ride is quite good and the interior modern with just a touch of glamour so you can see where your $22,000 plus went. We found that the weakness of this Subaru, as the Impreza, is the transmission. The automatic just isn’t quick enough and the manual’s linkage is too limp. However, if you get the turbocharged engine the automatic is just fine. The seats are well done and the gauges are distinctive and easy to read.
We found the base engine just doesn’t have enough energy when the Outback is loaded. Thus we highly recommend the much more potent turbocharged 2.5-liter four cylinder engine. The downside is that you can’t get this engine without a lot of other equipment. The XT Limited costs more, but it is worth it for the turbo, and a new system that allows you to “tell” that engine what type of performance you want from the smooth Intelligent mode to the Sport Sharp mode, which is quicker without too much jerkiness. The ride and steering are middle of the road in feel, but smooth is the operative word overall. Seating is excellent in front and limited in back. The rear seats fold down to yield 66 cubic feet of cargo space. The nine inches of ground clearance and significant shock travel render pot holes and steep driveways as minor annoyances.
The base engine has 175 horsepower and can be ordered is such trim packages as the Limited and L.L. Bean versions. The XT gets you the promised land and 243 horsepower and a five-speed automatic. If you really want to spend your money you can get the leather laden 3.0 R L.L. Bean with a 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine and 245 horsepower.
Safety items include antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and anti-whiplash front head rests. Crash scores were very good. The interior is nicely done, the switch gear has a good feel, and the interior lighting is good. The headlights are average, but the huge fog lamps give off some needed light in inclement weather. A dependable vehicle, much better than any SUV for a family, but still lacking a good transmission and the latest in electronics. Grade B-. Expensive options cost of maintenance, fuel economy.
For about $15,000 the Suzuki Forenza offers a great warranty, a good sized cargo bay, and not much else. The gas mileage isn’t as good as it should be, the handling is just adequate, and the crash scores are not as good as they should be. We like Suzuki and for the same price get the much better SX4. Grade D-
At $25,000 the Volkswagen Passat is not a bargain. It has plenty of power, has an attractive look and a nice interior, but if you go with the V6 engine or order any options on the four cylinder model you are going to be paying dearly. Indeed, a V6 model with all wheel drive can cost nearly $40,000. The Passat is not the quietest of cars either, but the interior appointments and gas mileage that was in the 23 mpg area soothed our picky heats. There are several models such as the Turbo, Komfort, and Lux, but they are essentially the same inside. You get a great many standard features and if you order the VR6 engine you get 4Motion all wheel drive. Stick with the base models and you have a very fine station wagon. The turbocharged 2.0 liter engine is well proven and the best choice for daily use with the 200 horsepower engine working just fine. You can order a six speed manual and get slightly better performance than the optional six speed automatic. The V6 makes 280 horsepower and gets less than 20 mpg in mixed driving. The turbo gave us 24 in mixed driving on premium fuel.
Safety items are antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, anti-whiplash head rests restraints, front-seat side airbags and full-length head curtain airbags. Also order the optional rear seat side airbags. Crash scores were good. The interior of the Passat is quite nice. Of course, as many cars we have test of late they just can’t help but make simple things complicated and the Passat was no exception. Too start the engine you place the ignition card into a lot on the dash and push it. Don’t ask how much that card is going to cost if you lose it. The cargo space is smallish at under 36 cubic feet, but it is easy to reach and the tailgate isn’t difficult to open or close. Driving this wagon is relaxing with a touch of sportiness. The chassis is solid and the steering is light. Parking is easy with excellent visibility. The seats are comfortable and the instruments and switches have a good feel to them. There is good storage space and the rear seats have adequate legroom. Grade B-. Cargo room, cost, repair costs.
This is a $28,000 station wagon that is small, but offers an excellent interior and a fresh face. The base engine is the proven 2.4-liter with an optional turbocharged motor available in the T5 model. There are some unique options such as Volvo’s Blind Spot Information System and all-wheel-drive, but basically this is a small version of the Volvo V70. The base engine is the 2.4 liter inline five cylinder that makes 168 horsepower that can be tamed by a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic. Although adequate the optional 2.5-liter inline-5 with 227 horsepower is a much better choice, especially with the all wheel drive option. Gas mileage for the non-turbo version is 25 mpg in mixed driving and 23 for the high output engine. The turbo is quick and there is very little torque steer. However, it does need premium fuel.
Safety from this Volvo is what you would expect from a safety conscious manufacture with antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control, front-seat side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags, whiplash-reducing head rests and an interesting optional feature in the form of headlights that turn with the steering wheel. Crash test scores were good.
The interior is bright and perky. There is light oak trim that looks good with the light upholstery. The controls are easy to use with buttons and knobs that are easy to activate and reach. The seats are quite comfortable and it is easy to find a good seating position. The steering wheel isn’t so thick that it does not allow you to reach the turn signals without taking your hands of it and the cargo capacity is nearly 63 cubic feet. The rear seats have a 60/40 split and the rear liftover is low. The handling is suspension is taut and you needn’t be afraid of corners with the V50. The price is significant for this Volvo, especially with the turbo charged T5 option. Having owned a number of Volvos in the past we noticed that repairs are expensive as are parts. On the plus side are its solid ride, seating comfort, and its good sized cargo area. Grade B-. Repair costs, option costs, resale.
Probably the best large station wagon made, the Volvo V70 for $35,000 is a bargain in some respects such as cargo capacity and safety, especially considering that a smaller Subaru Legacy Outback costs the same and does not have the usable cargo space, although it does have all wheel drive. The seats are excellent, the interior very happy, and only the expensive options and lack of grunt make this Volvo a world class vehicle. The engine is a six-cylinder of 3.2-liters that creates 235 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque with a six-speed automatic driving the front wheels. Fuel economy was under 19 mpg in mixed driving as the engine has too much weight to pull for its output.
Name it and the Volvo has it with traction and stability control, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, active front head rests, childproof door locks and two integrated two-stage child booster seats with adaptive seatbelts. Add to that a collision warning system, lane departure system and the must have Personal Car Communicator that sends a warning to the key fob should the car detect the heartbeat of an intruder inside the vehicle or damage to the Volvo. The interior is leather and wood with if you order the upgrade Premium Package. The interior lighting is good and the headlights are average. The GPS screen pops out of the dash and is much easier to read than the previous models. An interesting and useful gauge cluster is offset by an overly complicated GPS unit. This is a very well done interior with a light, Swedish feel. The seats are the best this side of a Saab, and the backseats fold 40/20/40 providing 71 cubic feet of cargo space.
Driving the V70 is easy and relaxing. The car has good highway manners, turns well, and is very easy to park. Visibility is excellent. Don’t look for race car acceleration, but you won’t be kept in the right lane either with the engine capable of good performance when it reaches higher rpms. Grade B. Repair costs, option costs, resale.
This is a four wheel drive version of the Volvo V70. If you need the extra ground clearance and drive in areas where the all wheel drive would be of benefit the $37,000 price tag might justify its purchase. The Volvo has truly great seats and safety features, but it does not do well on fuel mileage or when challenges with corners. All new this year, the Volvo XC70 has such unique features as built-in child booster seats and a hill-descent control. The engine is a 3.2-liter inline-6 with 235 horsepower that runs through a six-speed automatic sending power to all four wheels. Under normal conditions, 95 percent most of the power is sent to the front wheels, however, under duress up 65 percent goes to the rear wheels. The performance isn’t too bad, but the fuel economy is only 17 mpg in mixed driving. Add to that the cost of this big Volvo and you have a difficult decision to make. Those that do buy the XC get standard antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, anti-whiplash front head rests and Volvo’s OnCall system. As options Volvo offers a collision warning system with the adaptive cruise control that warns you when the vehicle ahead of you is too close. There is also a blind spot information system which uses the side view mirror to indicate when a vehicle is next to you. The Personal Car Communicator is utterly unbelievable. It send a warning to the key bog when the heartbeat of an intruder inside the vehicle. It is a must have as it also tells you if your car has been tampered with or if you locked the doors. Amazing.
There is room for five in the wagon and most of the controls are easy to use. The GPS is difficult to understand at first, and the radio controls can be even more simplified. Thankfully, they aren’t as awful as on previous models. The rear seats have a 40/20/40 split rear with a whopping 71 cubic feet of cargo room yours to fill with dogs and bargains. The ride is very soft and there is a fair amount of sway on corners. Essentially, this is unique vehicle that is easy to drive and offers some terrific safety features. Unfortunately, we owned a Volvo wagon for many years and have dealt with their service representative at length. We were not pleased. Maybe things have changed, but the cost of maintenance was dear and ongoing. Grade: C-. Cost, handling, resale, maintenance.
This is an experimental fuel-cell (hydrogen) powered station wagon type vehicle that needs to have access to a special refueling station to be of merit. There has been some units that have an at home refueling system, but we have not seen them. The car does not pollute and only gives off water vapor from the tailpipe. The 107-horsepower electric motor draws electricity from a fuel cell that mixed hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction. The FCX’s two tanks carry 8.4 pounds of fuel that can provide nearly 200 miles of commuting. If you want to accelerate briskly there is an ultracapacitor to help. The Honda runs silently and has some good initial acceleration. The instrument panel is quite interesting and keeps you apprised of what is happening, including the regeneration of energy from braking. An interesting vehicle and one where pricing and refueling stations will carry the weight of victory or defeat. Grade: Incomplete, but promising.
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Best station wagons for gas mileage (commuting)
Note that some models require premium fuel. We selected the highest rated model for this section. Usually the four cylinder powered models get in the mid 20 mpg average in daily driving, the six cylinder models around 21 mpg in mixed driving and the V8 models about 19 mpg. For high performance cars subtract between 10 and 30 percent.
Mixed Driving gas mileage figures
Mini Cooper 30
Kia Rio5 29
Scion xD 29
Chevrolet Aveo 27
Dodge Caliber 26
Mazda 3 25
Volkswagen Passat 24
Volvo V50 23
Audi 2.0 23
Saab 9-3 23
Suzuki SX4 23
Kia Rondo 22
Subaru Impreza 2.5i 22
Suzuki Forenza 22
Volvo V50 T5 22
Audi A6 22
Jaguar X-Type 20
BMW 3 Series 20
Volvo V70 19
Mercedes E-Class 18
BMW 5 Series 18
One of the best assets a vehicle can have is a small turning radius that makes it easy to maneuver. Here are some select statistics. Four-wheel drive cars often require more space to turn.
Kia Rio5 33
Suzuki Forenza 34
Mazda 3 34
Kia Rondo 34.4
Subaru Impreza 34.8
Volvo V50 34.9
Audi A3 35
Suzuki SX4 35.4
Dodge Caliber 35.5
Jaguar X-Type 35.7
Volkswagen Passat 35.8
Kia Rondo 36.1
Audi A4 36.4
Volvo V70 36.7
Saab 9-5 37.1
Mercedes E-Class 37.4