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Much-maligned wagons make a comeback

November 19, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

They began as 1920s-era jitneys that carted people and their belongings from the train station to the hotel. Today, they're trendy and sophisticated haulers that combine practicality with performance.

We're talking about station wagons, or simply wagons as they're now called. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, these suburban status symbols were popular with multi-kid families. But the minivan's 1984 debut, followed by an exponential growth in sport-utility vehicles a decade later, thinned their ranks. For a time it looked like the end of the line for these carry-alls.

But somehow, the wagon movement refused to die. Today, they thrive as practical counterpoints to the Mister Big and Talls of the automotive world.

Although a few wagons have been around for years (Volvo makes plenty and Ford's Taurus/Sable models, for example), many are recent category revivals or segment first-timers that provide a viable alternative to sport-utility vehicles.

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Today, wagons come in small, medium, large and super-size with engines to match. The most notorious of the bunch is the brainchild of a brand that's used to making a big splash with models such as the Viper; Ram SRT-10; and Neon SRT-4.

But in many ways the 2005 Dodge Magnum ($23,600) is the most traditional wagon of the bunch. It's long, low and available in rear- or all-wheel drive and combines impressive strength in the form of an available 340-horsepower "Hemi" V-8. The V-6 models will form the backbone of Magnum sales, but the AWD Hemi car makes quite a statement about the brand's macho intentions. It's also a clear alternative to the more upright looking - and still large - Chrysler Pacifica wagon that's also available in front- or all-wheel drive.

Also at the large end of the scale, the once best-selling Ford Taurus will eventually be replaced, in part, by two distinct vehicles, the Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle wagon ($25,600). Actually, the latter adds some sport-ute/minivan-based features such as three rows of forward-facing seats and the option of all-wheel drive. The company tags the Freestyle as a "crossover," a term that seems to mean "ideas borrowed from our other vehicle classes," but it's all wagon in terms of form and function. Unlike the Magnum, the Freestyle arrives with just one powerplant, a relatively tame 203-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 coupled to a continuously variable (as in no gears and no shifting) transmission. The currently unanswerable questions remain: will Ford respond to the V-8 Dodge Magnum with its own hot rod? Could more firepower for the Freestyle be under development at this moment?

General Motors hasn't yet jumped into the wagon fray with both feet, but its Chevrolet division has unleashed a couple of interesting competitors. The midsize Malibu Maxx ($21,300) is an extended-length and extended-roof version of the Malibu sedan and is equipped with a 200-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. One of the Maxx's more unique features is that each side of the 60/40 rear seat completely splits (top and bottom) to slide up to seven inches forward or back, providing maximum foot room or cargo space. The seats also recline for added passenger comfort.

The front-wheel-drive Maxx also features a fixed sunroof above the rear seats with a split-retractable shade to control the sunlight entering either side of the cabin.

The new Chevrolet Equinox ($21,000) also comes in front-wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is just an option tick-box away for drivers looking for more foul-weather sure-footedness. Although technically a truck and marketed as a compact sport-utility vehicle, the 3.4-liter-V-6 Equinox's wagon roots are definitely exposed. It also shares the Maxx's adjustable rear seat and adds a removable cargo shelf that doubles as a picnic table.

Among the newest of the growing Japanese wagon fleet is the Mazda6 Sport Wagon ($22,500). With a base 220-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 and a five-speed gearbox (a five-speed automatic is optional), the Mazda6 promises to live up to its "sport" tag while carrying up to five passengers and/or plenty of cargo behind the front or rear seats.

No matter who makes it, there's plenty of choice with more to come. All support the obvious fact that wagons offer a pleasant mix of power, style, function and, where applicable, economy of operation. With all-wheel drive, they're even a good alternative to sport-utility vehicles, which just might be the point.

Call it a revival or the next "Big Thing," just don't call them station wagons.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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