Sunday, April 14, 2013

Editorial: America needs more wagons and hatchbacks

I must admit, I am infatuated with wagons. One of my earliest car memories was of my father's mid-80's Chevy Caprice wagon, with the faux wood paneling running down the side. That massive boat of a car was the first car we had after moving to the US and, while it was stolen not too long into our ownership of it, I have fond memories of romping around in that cavernous back seat and luggage area, lost in the fantasy world concocted by my youthful imagination. While I realize that those childhood memories are likely distilled to be rather one-sided, I think that those are the kinds of memories I would like my children to have someday.

One thing I never quite understood is why SUVs and crossovers have become so popular. Taking a tall car body, putting it further up on stilts, adding the extraneous weight needed to strengthen the body in case of roll-over seems to be a recipe for disaster. In fact, in order to satisfy the performance desires of enthusiasts, manufacturers have taken to putting high performance engines into these tall platforms and creating vehicles that are dynamically the equivalent of genetically engineering a giraffe to sprint like a cheetah. People often say they want  SUVs and crossovers for the extra passenger space, extra cargo space, and extra ground clearance, but most people either seldom take advantage of these features or sacrifice heavily in terms of fuel economy and driving dynamics to get them.

The CTS-V Wagon is potent mix of scary power and great
handling with unmatched cargo space and utility.
But it need not be this way. Manufacturers at one point had gotten increasingly smarter about how they package their vehicles creating vehicles that carry many of the traits that people desire, without making the sacrifices typical of traditional SUVs. Subaru, for example. offers the Subaru Outback, a tall wagon format that offers all of the space and cargo benefits of an SUV with driving dynamics closer to that of a car. Looking for flat out performance? Cadillac has the CTS-V Wagon, a CTS wagon body with the supercharged motor of the Corvette ZR1 stuffed into the engine bay. Mercedes Benz used to carry a very limited supply of E-class wagons that had the 6.2L AMG V8 motor jammed into its engine bay. The quad exhaust poking out the back barking out sounds more typical of a muscle car rather than a family hauler. Need AWD and performance, Audi used to sell a wickedly quick A6 Avant body with a 4.2L V8 packed in the front. But many of these models have dwindled away, giving way to vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8, whose Hemi V8 engine makes it one quick car, but whose super stiff suspension makes for an incredibly unpleasant ride.

Need something smaller but still quick? There are any number of hot hatchbacks that offer an exceptional balance between carrying capacity, manageable size, and excellent driving dynamics. Subaru's WRX even offers AWD for those that need it. While most of these hatchbacks are FWD, they often perform well enough to give RWD cars a run for their money. Add to that the fact that you can carry passengers and a full load of luggage in comfort while still blasting through a twisty canyon road without having to give up fuel economy when just cruising around at sane speeds.

So car makers, do us a big favor: offer us the choice of a wagon if we want one. Even if it means custom ordering it and waiting a couple of months for it to be built and shipped, you may find that there are enough enthusiasts who genuinely want everything that a wagon has to offer, especially as we get old enough to have families of our own. We do not want to sacrifice fuel economy, driving dynamics, and vehicle stability in order to get space and we do not want a minivan that will not fit into our increasingly crowded urban lifestyles. Instead, we want the glory days of the wagon back. Stop holding out on us because we can see what you offer to the rest of the world. We know you are in the business of making money and we want to give you our money, just not for an SUV or crossover. Let me share the memories I had growing up with the children I hope to have one day.

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