Wagon Buying Guide

Large, wood-sided station wagons are a thing of the past, but the concept lives on in a small number of mainstream and luxury wagons. 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 Subaru Outback, Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, and Volvo V60 have all-wheel drive available and a higher ground clearance that help to make them appealing alternatives to an SUV. Likewise, an alternative to wagons can be found in hatchbacks, as detailed in our small car buying guide

What to Know

Wagons combine the cargo-carrying flexibility of a small or midsized SUV with the comfort, fuel economy, handling, and performance of a sedan.

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 can be more fuel efficient than heavier 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. Some wagons can achieve overall fuel economy in the mid 20s. 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. All-wheel drive is available on most wagons and is consumers are urged to consider an AWD wagons because of the safety advantage they can provide. Advanced safety features like forward-collision warning, automatic braking, and blind-spot monitors 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 and Hyundai Accent for about $16,000.

A step up brings you to a Kia NiroSubaru Impreza, or Volvo V60, which have better-appointed interiors and good fuel economy for the class with prices in the low $20s to about $30,000. The Subaru Outback sells in the upper $20,000 range and offers a good balance of room and price.

Sporty wagons such as the BMW 3 Series sell in the mid $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 V90 offers a true alternative to upscale SUVs.

At the top end of wagons, you'll find the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which starts at about $65,000 and offers a true combination of luxury, performance, and versatility.

Types

Budget Cars
There are several budget hatchback cars that provide wagon 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.)

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. Models with 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 when folded forward, 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.

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. 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 airbags are common for front-seat passengers, too. Head-protecting side airbags, usually in the form of a side curtain that covers front and rear side windows, are 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.)

Advanced Safety Technologies
The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rearview cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate when hard-to-see vehicles are driving to the side and rear of you. Automatic emergency braking systems are also becoming commonplace. These collision-avoidance systems apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too quickly and ignore an audible warning that sounds to alert you to the situation. Another advanced technology is lane-keeping assist, which centers your car in the lane if you start to drift. Often, all these features can be had in a single options package. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and Convenience
The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio System 
The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner with speakers left and right and fore and aft, with satellite radio and various inputs for external devices. CD players are becoming rare. An upgraded system typically has a more powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise canceling, and surround sound.

Cars at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smartphone or an iPod and for charging mobile devices, though some high-end European models have proprietary adapters that require a dealer-supplied plug to connect your device.

Satellite and HD Radio  
Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels with catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $11 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka 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 sub-channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation Systems and Connectivity
In-car navigation systems are a great feature if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a high-end audio system, that can add to the cost. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted in the center of the dashboard and generally have intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus.

Most respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription 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 the same capabilities for far less money. And, of course, smartphones can provide great navigation guidance. (See ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation, as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps, such as Aha and Pandora.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM’s OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and 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 and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the built-in GPS receiver to give first responders the car’s location.

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. Solidstate 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.)

Our 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 New & Used Car Buying Guide.

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