From women fleeing the stigma of being a "minivan mom" to skiers seeking a snow-going alternative for the ubiquitous sport utility vehicle, a growing cadre of car shoppers is rediscovering the station wagon.
It seems that in some quarters it's cool to be square. The boxy station wagon, almost killed off by the minivan and the SUV in the 1990s, is staging a bit of a comeback. The shapes, though, are sleeker these days and the accoutrements posher.
The quarter of a million new wagons registered in the U.S. last year isn't much compared with the million-a-year pace of the early 1980s. But at 2% of total passenger vehicles, it is easily twice the annual wagon registration pace of the late 1990s.
And wagon registrations were up 19% last year from their low point in 1998, according to R.L. Polk Co., a Michigan firm that tracks new-vehicle data.
With auto makers seeking more niches to fill with specialized vehicles, industry watchers such as consultant George Peterson of AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin say the parade of wagons, including hybrid designs that car companies call crossovers or sport activity vehicles, will grow. Although wagon buyer demographics have changed--they now sell to people young and old, singles and childless couples as well as families--one constant remains: Most wagons still sell because of their cargo and passenger capacity.
The most popular models include the Volvo V70 wagon, the second-best-selling wagon nationally behind the all-wheel-drive Subaru Legacy, and a favorite of couples with small children because of Volvo's reputation for safety.
That's what drew Michelle Miller, a 33-year-old pediatric cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and mother of 18-month-old Benjamin, to her new $33,000 V70.
"A station wagon is not what I would have pictured myself driving, not in a million years," said Miller, who grew up in New York and now lives in Beverly Hills.
But her Ford Explorer was too bulky for the short around-town trips she finds herself making as a new mom, she said. "And it was hard to get the baby in and out of."
So her husband got the Explorer and it was off to the Volvo dealership.
"We started and stopped with wagons, and we only looked at Volvos because of the reputation for safety," she said. "And I liked that it has lots of room for baby stuff, and I like the interior and the way it handles."
Boosting the wagon market these days are sales of rugged off-road models, performance models and ultra-luxury models usually affordable for buyers whose careers have advanced well past apprenticeship and whose children, if there are any, are out on their own.
Wagon buyers "are all over the map," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision, a national automotive market consulting firm based in San Diego. "They are as diverse a group as any and they buy for a wide variety of reasons."
Only 10% of station wagon buyers in 2001 traded in an SUV, Gorrell said, although the number climbed as high as 19% for buyers of high-end wagons such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. "I don't see this as an anti-SUV backlash," he said.
The station wagon, which flowered in the post-World War II baby boom of the 1950s as the American family vehicle of choice, now fills many market niches and no longer is being bought solely to haul the kids.
Ask recent wagon buyers such as 34-year-old bachelor Kaj van de Loo, or Ray Smith, a 54-year-old whose only child is off to college next year.
Smith, a senior scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, recently bought a Volkswagen Passat wagon "because I got tired of hauling lumber and landscaping plants and supplies in my BMW 325i."
He sold the BMW to raise cash for the $24,600 Passat, but kept his two-seat Honda S2000 sports car. Smith, who ordered his station wagon with a five-speed manual transmission, considers himself an "aggressive enthusiast" behind the wheel.
Like many new station wagon buyers, Smith looked at other wagons, but didn't bother with SUVs. "As both an environmental professional and an enthusiast driver, I think they're disgraceful," he said.
Van de Loo, a San Francisco software developer, also considers himself somewhat of a driving enthusiast. He also has a BMW Z3 roadster, and did look at an SUV--a BMW X5--before buying his station wagon. His girlfriend moved from Germany to be with him, and he was looking for a second car that would be more practical than the convertible when they indulge their passion for skiing.
He ended up with a $41,000 Audi allroad (and that's Audi's preferred, no-capitals, spelling). It's a station wagon based on the Audi A6 platform but outfitted with all-wheel drive and a suspension that can be raised, by pushing a button, to provide as much as 8.2 inches of ground clearance when driving off-road or in the snow.