Volkswagen Passat WagonClick to enlarge picture

The Volkswagen Passat Wagon gets totally redesigned for 2007 with a longer wheelbase, a wider body and clear, high-tech headlights.

station wagon

While its "station" days of hauling passengers and their luggage to and from railroad depots are over, today's wagons have come a long way from their utilitarian roots. Now often referred to simply as wagons, or sport wagons for the more performance-oriented ones, wagons have evolved into autonomous models designed to fill specific niches in the U.S. market.

For the 2006 model year, wagons come in many shapes and sizes with starting prices ranging from less than $15,000 to more than $50,000. While some consumers enjoy the fuel economy of compacts such as the Kia Spectra5, others are attracted to the roominess and power of full-size wagons such as the Dodge Magnum.

Photo Gallery: Station Wagons

Then come the vehicles that are harder to define, such as the Ford Freestyle, Scion xB and the Mazda Mazda5. Some may consider them crossovers, others may label them sport-utility vehicles, while some may even call them minivans. Regardless of what these vehicles seem to be, or what automotive marketeers claim they are, these members of the new breed still possess features and capabilities of station wagons.

New wagons for the 2006 model year include the Kia Rio5, Mazda Mazda5, BMW 5-Series Sports Wagon, Saab 9-3 SportCombi and Mercedes-Benz R-Class.

Wagons From Europe
While domestic automakers give consumers relatively few traditional styles to choose from, European carmakers offer a variety of wagon choices. German-based Audi has four, including the A3, A4 Avant, A6 Avant and the S4 Avant—each one available with all-wheel drive.

Audi's parent company, Volkswagen, offers the Passat Wagon. All new for the 2007 model year, the wagon features a wider body and a longer wheelbase.

Mercedes-Benz recently introduced its all-new Sports Tourer called the R-Class. Built on the same platform as the M-Class SUV, it combines the handling of a four-wheel-drive SUV, the comfort of a sports sedan, and the versatility of a luxury wagon. Mercedes also offers the E-Class Wagon, which is redesigned for 2007 and will be available later this year.

BMW's 5-Series Sports Wagon returns for 2006, after production was stopped at the end of the 2003 model year. Available for the first time with all-wheel drive, the 5-Series wagon has always emphasized performance and an enjoyable driving experience. BMW also offers the smaller 3-Series Sports Wagon, which blends the 3-Series character with elements from the 7-Series and the 5-Series.

All-Wheel-Drive Wagons
Many wagons on the market for 2006 offer full-time all-wheel drive. Subaru has wagon versions in three of its sedan models: the Impreza Wagon, Legacy Wagon and Outback. Saab also offers three wagons including the 9-2X. In fact, the 9-2X is based on the Impreza Wagon; both share the same engines, transmissions and all-wheel-drive systems.

Other wagons available with four-wheel drive include the Dodge Magnum, Volvo V50, V70 and XC70, and Jaguar X-TYPE Sportwagon.

Under $20,000
For budget-conscious shoppers, there are a number of wagons to choose from for less than $20,000. As the replacement for the Rio Cinco, the 2006 Kia Rio5 features sporty new styling and has a starting MSRP under $14,000. The Kia Spectra5 joined the lineup for the 2005 model year and starts under $16,000. Both run on fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines that achieve over 30 mpg on the highway.

The 2006 Ford Focus Wagon is a five-door hatchback with a price starting in the mid-$16,000 range. Suzuki's Forenza Wagon is restyled for 2006, highlighted by a new front fascia design and prices starting just over $14,000 for the base model. Subaru's Impreza Wagon is the only four-wheel-drive wagon with a starting price under $20,000.

Undefined Group
With the station wagon segment being constantly redefined by diverse and divergent designs, many new vehicles possess features of a station wagon but retain particular elements of a sedan, SUV, and/or crossover. Take the all-new 2006 Chevrolet HHR as an example. Chevrolet describes it as a combination of the SSR roadster truck with a 1949 Suburban. It is built on the same platform as the Chevrolet Cobalt, it offers 5-passenger seating with reconfigurable cargo capacity, and a fold-flat front passenger seat that enables the HHR to carry items up to eight feet long.

Another utilitarian vehicle is the Ford Freestyle. It looks like an SUV, drives like a sedan and has the passenger and cargo capacity of a minivan. Some crossover vehicles overlap into the station wagon category simply because of their versatility, looks and handling. Other cars in this group of crossovers include the Chrysler Pacifica, Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe and Suzuki Aerio SX.

Then there are wagons in classes all by themselves, such as the all-new Mazda5. This new model has three rows of theater-style seats for up to six passengers, second- and third-row seats that fold nearly flat for cargo hauling, and sporty driving characteristics typical of the Mazda product line. In fact, the Mazda5 utilizes the underbody architecture, suspension design and components of the Mazda3 in a unique wedge-shaped body that features two sliding doors.

The Scion xB is another unique vehicle, recognizable by its boxy shape and sharp edges. Fast becoming a signature vehicle of a brand created by parent-company Toyota and aimed toward a younger generation of car buyers, the subcompact xB is designed to possess great handling with lowered suspension, a spacious interior, and second-row seats that fold flat and can be removed for extra cargo space.

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