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Wagons

Wagon buying guide

Last updated: February 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Large, wood-sided station wagons are a thing of the past, but the concept lives on in a small number of practical wagons, luxury wagons, and several small hatchbacks. Wagons are usually based on an equivalent sedan, sharing the sedan's performance and features while adding utility with a rear liftgate and flat-folding rear seats. Some, such as the Audi Allroad, Subaru Outback, and Volvo XC70, have all-wheel drive available and a higher ground clearance that help to make them appealing alternatives to an SUV.

Why buy a wagon or hatchback?

Wagons and some hatchbacks combine the cargo-carrying flexibility of a small or midsized SUV with the comfort, fuel economy, handling, and performance of a sedan. Even a small, two-door hatchback can provide a lot of cargo room for its size.

Key things to consider

When looking for a hatchback or wagon, consider the type of driving you do, the climate and/or road conditions, how much power is necessary, how much cargo you will be carrying, and how many people you will be likely to transport. Fuel economy and price are also factors. Wagons are more fuel efficient than SUVs and many models come at a more affordable sticker price, translating to saving money at time of purchase and later at the pump.

The powertrain for wagons usually ranges from a small-displacement four-cylinder to a more powerful six-cylinder engine, although V8s are available in a limited number of sporty and luxury models. Small, budget hatchbacks can achieve overall fuel economy in the mid 30s, but larger wagons only hit the high teens. Some models, particularly luxury vehicles, have good fit and finish and extra features such as a telescoping steering wheel, automatic climate control, and power seats. Most wagons are available with a full complement of safety equipment. Stability control, side and side-curtain air bags, and antilock brakes are all common and highly recommended.

The most practical strategy is to seek a hatchback or wagon that meets your requirements without buying more car than you need. Consider starting with our lists of Recommended wagons and working your way up the line from the smallest and least costly.

What you'll spend

You can buy a budget car with hatchback versatility and excellent fuel economy in models such as the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, or Mazda2 for about $16,000.

A step up brings you to a Mazda3, Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, or Volkswagen Golf, which have better-appointed interiors and good fuel economy for the class with prices in the upper teens to the low $20,000 range. At a similar price point, you can choose the mini-minivan Mazda5 or the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen, which are more commodious. The Subaru Outback sells in the upper $20,000 range and offers a good balance of room and price.

Sporty wagons such as the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series sell in the low $40,000 range. They are available with all-wheel drive and retain the upscale packaging and sporty demeanor of their sedan counterparts. The larger Volvo XC70 offers a true alternative to upscale SUVs.

At the top end of wagons, you'll find the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which costs about $60,000 and offers a true combination of luxury, performance, and versatility.

Types

Budget cars


There are several budget cars that provide hatchback functionality at an affordable price. These models typically deliver excellent fuel economy and cargo-carrying flexibility. Such entry-level vehicles often have tight rear seats, small engines, and modest features, although we're seeing even these budget models offer more upscale equipment. But they can be affordable to purchase and maintain, making them appealing as basic commuters and errand runners. Budget cars can be a particularly good fit for urban drivers and young drivers seeking a first, new car.

Small wagons/hatchbacks


More refined than the budget cars, these models are practical transport, with roomier back seats and good fuel economy. Most have sedan counterparts and sport four doors along with the added benefit of cargo-carrying flexibility. These are good alternatives to small SUVs because they have similar utility but are more affordable and fuel efficient.

Family wagons/hatchbacks


These wagons are midsized SUV alternatives with family-sedan-like fuel economy, handling, and ride. Their roomy interiors can seat five adults comfortably. Some upscale wagons offer a premium interior, all-wheel drive, and added safety features, but their fuel economy typically suffers compared with down-market models. Prices for such mainstream models are more comparable to those of a family sedan or small SUV. (Consult our road tests regarding your choices. If we haven't tested the wagon, look for the equivalent sedan road test for insights and Ratings.)

http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/types/new-a-to-z-index.htm

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a station wagon.

Engines and fuel economy

Most models are only available with an automatic transmission, although manual transmissions are available for some small and sporty models. Manuals can provide better performance and fuel economy than basic automatics, and some drivers find them to be more fun to drive. Many automatics now provide a manual-override feature that can work in a way similar to a manual transmission, but without a clutch pedal. Models with 5-, 6-, 7- or even 8-speed automatic transmissions or continuously variable transmissions may provide better fuel economy than a traditional manual. It is always smart to check our Ratings before making assumptions, as there are no hard and fast rules for what will deliver the best real-world fuel economy.

Drive wheels

Most models use front-wheel drive, which usually provides better traction than rear-wheel drive in slippery conditions. Rear-wheel drive is used on some sporty and luxury wagons because of its contribution to good handling. There is a rising number of models that are available with all-wheel drive, providing heightened foul-weather traction. For more information about drive systems see our report on how much traction do you need.

Towing

Some wagons can tow up to 2,000 pounds, although smaller models might be able to tow only about half that weight. Many are simply not recommended for towing. Look at the tow capacity rating and be sure that you get a vehicle that can handle any load you might tow and is properly equipped to do so. Tow packages are typically available as a factory option, or they are outfitted with aftermarket products.

Access

When comparing models, try entering and exiting from all four doors. A well-designed wagon should provide wide doors and enough head room so that passengers can enter and exit easily without bumping their heads. The rear hatch should open and close easily. Most models allow the rear split seat to fold flat, but some leave this seat tilted slightly, making it a challenge to load cargo and keep it in place.

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, especially in the budget models. Only the Mercedes E-Class wagon can be equipped with a small rear-facing third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to seven. It is suitable only for children. Access is through the rear hatch.

http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/mercedes-benz/e-class.htm

Cargo space

Cargo space can vary a great deal between smaller and larger models. 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 passenger occupies the other rear seat.

Safety

Wagons and hatchbacks can be very safe on the road, as indicted by Consumer Reports' safety Ratings, which include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and of crash-test results based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Due to their size, subcompact models typically will not provide as much occupant protection as larger models. Our road tests detail issues regarding child-seat installation and the adequacy of front and rear head restraints.

All rear seating positions have top-tether and lower LATCH attachments. Chest-level side air bags are common for front-seat passengers, too. Head-protecting side air bags, usually in the form of a side curtain that covers front and rear side windows, are becoming very common and we recommend them.

Electronic stability control is a computer-controlled feature that automatically and selectively applies brakes to prevent an impending sideways slide. We highly recommend ESC, and it became standard in all passenger cars as of the 2012 model year. A proven lifesaving feature, ESC can help to reduce the risk of a rollover and other crash types. Another feature, traction control, can help you to get going on a slippery road but doesn't aid in a sideways skid. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rear-view cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too fast and ignore an audible or other warning that alerts you to the situation. Such premium safety features are not available on most small cars, but over time, they are expected to trickle down from more upscale models. Some wagons, notably GM vehicles and those from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen, offer a cellular-based telematics subscription service that provides emergency aid and numerous travel-related services. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. There is a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory, and more so available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has a higher-watt amplifier”so you can play music loud with minimum distortion”and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, hard-drive music storage, and DVD-Audio playback.

Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds of dollars to a car's sticker price. Cars at every price level are adding a jack where you can plug in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system. Only stereos with a specific iPod connector or USB input, rather than a micro plug port, will be able to control and recharge an iPod.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast œalongside" a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for about $750 to $1,500 when offered alone but are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system, which can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and some use touch-screen displays that make it easy to put in destinations and navigate through menus. Some can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But portable GPS units can offer most of those abilities for much less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigators.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming more readily available, enabling wireless devices such as cell phones to communicate wirelessly with the car's audio system. That results in convenient, hands-free phone operation. In addition, some new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Popularized by GM's OnStar, telematics systems use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions or summon emergency aid based on your vehicle's location.

Brands


Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant station wagon brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their models.

Subaru

Subaru has been very popular in the wagon category, partly because of its standard all-wheel drive, ruggedness, and flexible interior. All current Subaru wagons tested by Consumer Reports have been recommended. Typical highs include good reliability, ride comfort, and controls. Common lows include fuel economy and late-responding stability control.

Volvo

Volvo is known as a safety innovator. Highs include excellent crash-test results, safety features, and standard stability control. Some models even have available integrated child-booster seats. Overall, reliability is improving, but some models have their problems. Volvos are pleasant to drive, but do not stand out in their categories.

Volkswagen

Volkswagens have well-constructed interiors and a high level of attention to detail. Ride comfort is usually good and handling is responsive. Modern engines are punchy and relatively fuel efficient. Older ones are rough. Reliability has been a mixed bag, especially after several years. Crash-test results are impressive and a comprehensive list of advanced safety equipment is the norm.

See coming wagons in our New Car Preview.

New vs. Used

When in the market for a wagon, you should first consider whether to buy a new or used car. Buying a brand-new wagon or hatchback certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new cars can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements. And with a new car, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying a new car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed a third of its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Used cars can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a car that you like that's only a couple of years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of the regular servicing necessary in the past.

The key to selecting a good used wagon or hatchback is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that has done well in our Reliability judgments. For many years, the reliability stars in our records have mostly been Japanese-nameplate models, especially those from Honda, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota. (See our guide to car reliability.)

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for wagons with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. At the same time, every used car is unique. A careful prepurchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do your homework and take care in the car selection, a used wagon can save you significant money in the long run.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research if you are to choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

Learn more in our guides to buying a new or used car.

See coming wagons in our New Car Preview.

   

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