What to Look for in a Wagon or Hatchback
A Consumer Reports' guide to help you decide if versatility is right for you.
The GTI GLX
Wagons and hatchbacks are available in a variety of models, from the $16,000 Toyota Matrix to the luxurious $55,000 Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon. Models like the Subaru Outback, Volvo XC70, and Audi Allroad, with all-wheel drive and a little higher ground clearance, provide reasonable alternatives to an SUV.
Why buy a wagon or hatchback? Wagons and some hatchbacks combine the cargo-carrying flexibility of a small SUV with the handling, performance, and fuel economy of a sedan. Even a small two-door hatchback provides a lot of cargo room for its size.
Engines and transmissions. Most small and midsized wagons and hatchbacks come with a four- or five-cylinder engine, which typically provides the best fuel economy. For more power, choose a six-cylinder or turbocharged engine. Some modern V6s provide fuel economy that is almost as good or better than a four-cylinder. More-expensive models usually come with a six- cylinder, although some offer an optional V8 for more power. Look for an engine that operates smoothly and quietly. While idling, there should be minimal noise or vibration. Even under hard acceleration, the engine should never be intrusive.
Most models are only available with an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions are often available for small and sporty models. Manuals usually provide better performance and fuel economy than automatics, and many drivers find them more fun to drive. Many automatics now provide a manual-shift mode that works similar to a manual transmission, but without a clutch.
Front-, rear-, or all-wheel drive? Most models use front-wheel drive, which usually provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. Some models use rear- wheel drive, which typically provides better handling and steering. All-wheel drive (AWD) models provide significantly better traction in slippery conditions. Traction control, available on many models, also helps provide extra traction in slippery conditions, but it isn't as effective as all-wheel drive. For more information about drive systems see our free traction-debate report, available on ConsumerReports.org.
Fuel economy. Free reports and news on fuel efficiency are available on ConsumerReports.org.
Access. When comparing models, try entering and exiting from all four doors. A well-designed model should provide wide doors and enough head room so that both front and rear passengers can enter and exit easily without bumping their heads.
Seating. Most models provide seating for five, two front and three rear passengers. But the middle rear position is often tight and uncomfortable for adults. Sit in each seat to gauge its comfort. Look for a center rear seat with a three-point safety belt rather than a lap belt. Some models offer a front bench seat, with three seating positions. But the center position is cramped and unsafe because it has only a lap belt.
A few models can be equipped with a small rear-facing third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to seven or eight. These are suitable only for children. Access to them is through the rear hatch.
If your primary rear-seat passengers are children, rear leg room may not be a priority. If you intend to seat adults in back, however, they should be able to sit comfortably with the front seats pushed a good way back. You can check this by adjusting the driver's seat so that it's comfortable for you, then sit in the seat behind it, checking for adequate leg room.
Cargo space. Cargo space can vary a great deal between smaller and larger models. Consider what you'll typically be carrying and get an appropriately sized vehicle. All models have fold-down rear seats that can expand the cargo space. A split-back design is the most versatile because one side can be folded down while a person occupies the other rear seat. See our cargo-capacity chart (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers) to compare the cargo area of different models.
Towing. Some wagons can tow up to 2,000 pounds, although smaller models may be able to tow about half that. Some are not recommended for towing. Look at the tow capacity rating and be sure you get a vehicle that can handle any load you may tow. Tow packages are typically available as a factory option, or they can be purchased as an aftermarket product.
Safety features. All new sedans have standard dual front air bags, three-point safety belts in the outboard seating positions, and top-tether and LATCH child-seat attachments in the rear seats. Some sedans offer side air bags and/or head-protection bags, typically a side -curtain design that's intended to protect people in both the front and rear seats (but not in a third-row seat). Antilock brakes are standard or optional on most models.
Other safety features to look for include electronic stability control (ESC), traction control, tire-pressure monitors, safety-belt pretensioners, occupant-sensing air-bag systems, and daytime running lights.
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