Saturday, March 30, 2013

Wagon Train

It's rested and ready.

It’s rested and ready.

This is about the fifth or sixth article I’ve read over the years that says that station wagons are on the verge of making a comeback.

Baby boomer Terry Keegan Sr. grew up in the back of a station wagon, watching the world go by out the back window. But when it came time to start his own family, Keegan opted first for a minivan and then a “cooler” SUV.

Now it’s his son’s turn to express his individuality. Terry Keegan Jr., a member Generation Y, also known as the millennials, paused for a moment at the New York International Auto Show this week before dashing off to check out the new Volvo V60 R-Design wagon.

“That’s not like the wagons my dad used to hate,” Keegan Jr. said. “I don’t see the wood panels. This thing is really hot. I could see myself driving it.”

A case of generational rebellion, maybe, but industry planners are watching closely to see whether the long-dismissed station wagon is finally – after several false starts – ready for a revival.

You don’t have to convince Europeans visiting New York’s annual auto show.

“Wagons are big there,” says Andy Goss, the Brit now running Jaguar/Land Rover’s North American subsidiary. In fact, the maker has been gaining raves – and sales – with the recently launched “sporting brake” version of its mid-range XF model.

“Do you think we could sell a wagon here?” asks his boss, Jaguar/Land Rover global CEO Ralf Speth, echoing a question several senior executives visiting the New York show have been overheard asking at the show.

Few agree on the answer.

At the station wagon’s peak during the post-World War II baby boom, wagons were the body style of choice for American family buyers, accounting for millions of sales. They became an icon of U.S. suburban life.

But as boomers reached driving age, wagon sales declined in favor of just about anything else. And as boomers raised their own families, minivans took over as the symbol of ‘80s suburbia.

Then came the classic, truck-based sports utility vehicle, now also in decline, giving way to car-based crossovers that maintain rugged appearance but boast better mileage and on-road manners.

“And a lot of them are nothing more than wagons on steroids,” says Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting.

I remember getting into a “discussion” with a car show spokesmodel when I checked out Cadillac’s latest venture into the crossover market:

ME:  That’s a nice-looking station wagon.

SPOKESMODEL: It’s not a station wagon; it’s a crossover.

ME: Okay, let’s see: does it have four doors, a tailgate, a roof rack, and is it less than six feet tall?

SPOKESMODEL:  Well, yes.

ME:  It’s a station wagon.

SPOKESMODEL:  Thanks for stopping by.

I’d like to see the wagon return if only to show that I’ve been a trendsetter without knowing it.