The station wagon returns

In recent years we have been witnessing the inexorable rise and rise of the SUV. These big beasts are now ubiquitous on our roads. But here and there, displayed on stands mostly recently at the Geneva motor show a rarity appeared: the humble station wagon.

Volvo rolled out its sleek and low V90. Mercedes showed off its AMG E63 S wagon, a family-sized car with a 603hp performance attitude and a price likely to top £80,000 ($100,000).

The estate car or station wagon was once the only alternative to sedans and thus sought after. Since the inexorable rise of the mighty SUV though the wagon has become an increasingly rare sight. As seen at the shows, this alternative load-carrier is poised for a remarkable renaissance.

Unlike sports cars or hot hatchbacks, these machines were not very sexy to begin with. When the SUV came along with the same cargo space in a tougher, taller package, buyers flocked to them.

So why the sudden appearance of new sedans with extra room on the back? In fact, there has always been consistent, if niche, demand. So although some brands have dropped the wagon others have seen it as an opportunity.

“There’s a fundamental demand level that doesn’t fluctuate much,” said IHS Market Senior Analyst Stephanie Brinley. “It’s enough for the players who are left to see some healthy take.”

The small section of drivers who are still keen for a wagon are seen as the best customers in the car business. They are more educated, it is believed, more affluent, and more loyal than other buyers, dispelling the station wagon cliché of a few decades back.

A station wagon is a marvel of financial engineering, as much as mechanical. With higher prices and virtually zero added cost, its unit economics are usually better than those of conventional cars. The Volvo V90 in full dress trim costs the thick end of £54,000 ($66,000), for example, and is a hushed, quick cruiser.

It helps that today’s station wagons are incredible. Long gone are the days when these machines where equated with dullness. The latest cars have impressive driving dynamics and this is where wagons still beat their taller siblings. The segment is getting sportier. Take Audi’s RS6 Avant, costing around the same as the AMG E63. Not only does it carry the family and their luggage, it is also one of the fastest cars of any type on the road.

New station wagons are even coming from prestigious brands like Porsche. No longer the drudges of old, these cars now come with powerful engines, vast trunks and even all-wheel drive and offer a real alternative to the high and mighty SUV.

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