Cadillac boss Bob Ferguson recently told Automotive News that GM is considering an ATS wagon. Autoweek contributor and GM big shot Mark Reuss is on record speaking in favor of wagons. And whether they know it or not, American car buyers need a station wagon, but not a wagon built to satisfy station-wagon fetishists.
Americans need a station wagon serving the station wagon's original purpose—the likes of which we haven't seen since the Buick Roadmaster era ended. A full-sized, flat-roofed American station wagon.
What happened to that type of car? For almost half a century, American station wagons plied American highways packed with kids, dogs and other cargo. Then they slowly disappeared, their role first replaced by minivans, then SUVs and, finally, the loathsome crossover.
Note: It seems that the teaser posted here earlier has caused some confusion. We've decided to post the whole piece to make it easier on you.
The Malaise era saw the '50s and '60s stylish, practical station wagons morph into baroque, veneered, emissions-strangled gas guzzlers. They might be loveable today, but by the time the reasonably efficient, spacious minivan arrived, it was clearly a better people hauler. Several traditional American wagons hung on, but their days were numbered.
By the early 1990s, the American car-buying public was becoming hypnotized by the idea that an SUV was a butch, outdoorsy alternative to both the minivan and Dad's old station wagon. Of course, this second idea is pure silliness: Dad probably fought in a war, drank whiskey, smoked and could definitely whip the asses of all his baby-boomer kids well into his '60s. If a station wagon was good enough to haul Dad's boat and take his buddies hunting, it was good enough to haul a case of Evian home from Sam's Club in time to catch "Beverly Hills, 90210."
The main reason station wagons were a popular sedan alternative in the pre-SUV era was they offered incredible amounts of usable interior volume, translating into almost unparalleled versatility. They also returned better fuel economy than a truck or van with similar seating capacity—'90s SUVs offered similar versatility because, even though they generally shared more in common with trucks mechanically, their bodies were basically station-wagon bodies with trucky styling. Open the rear hatch, and you were presented with a station-wagon-like cargo area. There was room for Mom, Dad, the kids and a bunch of priceless Beanie Babies or Pogs or whatever. Gas was cheap, so it didn't matter a Ford Expedition was fuel inefficient. With the SUV filling the station wagon's natural niche, the American station wagon died out, leaving the station-wagon market occupied by small, sporty European wagons—sport wagons.
Then gas got pricey, and the auto industry responded by building crossovers. The idea was to build a more fuel-efficient replacement for the traditional SUVs Americans clearly still wanted to buy. They were made to look kind of like SUVs, but they didn't have heavy-duty running gear like an old Cherokee or body-on-frame construction like an old Excursion.
They're basically big, fat cars combining all the biggest drawbacks of some other types of cars. They're about as unaerodynamic as a van, but they don't have as much interior space; they're almost as heavy as an SUV, but they don't have the towing capacity or off-road capability. They're slightly more fuel-efficient than the SUVs whose styling they ape, but not as fuel efficient as a wagon, which could (and used to) offer as much or more interior space.
Crossovers' positive attributes are as follows: 1. They have a high h-point. 2. They look sort of like melted SUVs. 3. They offer more interior volume than a sedan. (That the second attribute is indeed a positive attribute is debatable). Some crossovers are well-executed, but the idea of the crossover is itself basically idiotic.
I'm not usually one to underestimate the American car buyer's capacity for irrational decision making. Hell, it's one of my favorite things about American car buyers. But surely a case can be made for replacing the CUV with something designed for a purpose other than looking like something it's not. And if consumers want improved fuel economy and don't want to give up interior volume, lowering a car's ride-height, frontal area and weight would seem like solid first steps. We're already watching crossovers evolve into pseudo-wagons with lower roofs and ride-heights; why don't we just skip the steps between where we are and where we need to be?
This is the part where you point out that previous attempts to sell modern American wagons have been met with praise from the press and indifference from car buyers. I'll concede that point, but I'll also ask you to consider the difference between a modern sport wagon and a traditional station wagon. As much as I loved the Cadillac CTS wagon and CTS-V wagon and as much as I liked the Dodge Magnum, they were sport wagons, not station wagons. Their designers sacrificed interior volume and utility for a pretty, sloping roofline. The CTS station wagon had less rear-seat headroom than a CTS sedan. While that's OK for enthusiasts who need a little extra room, it doesn't work for those who need practical, versatile transportation. In short, they didn't do what station wagons are supposed to do—what American car buyers need them to do. It's also worth noting they weren't designed or marketed as more fuel-efficient alternatives to crossovers.
It goes without saying a wagon revival is fraught with peril. A few of the most obvious questions are: 1. Is any fuel-economy improvement from lower weight and improved aerodynamic efficiency (compared with a CUV of comparable seating and cargo capacity) enough to get consumers to look at a wagon? 2. Is it possible to design a modern, full-size wagon and not end up with something like the Ford Flex? 3. Is an automaker capable of creating and executing a marketing campaign effectively illustrating one type of car's substantive advantages over another? (ed note: No.)
But, if it's possible to build a wagon offering improved utility and fuel economy when compared to a CUV—and it sure seems like it would be—and if it's possible for an automaker to convince CUV buyers to get into the wagon, it could have a positive impact on that automaker's CAFE numbers.
So, while I am strongly in favor of Cadillac building an ATS-V wagon, I'll be honest and admit it won't be a money-maker for the General—unless you can put a value on the goodwill it creates among auto-media types. The tragedy is some small-minded bean counter or another would trot out the ATS wagon's anemic sales numbers every time someone suggests Americans need a wagon. I'd be willing to bet the poor sap doing the arguing has never opened up a 1964 Chrysler New Yorker Wagon, folded down the seats and admired the beauty of half an acre of interior space with only a low, aerodynamically efficient roof to keep the weather out.