The Lowly Station Wagon Stages A (Modest) Comeback
For years, the station wagon has been the red headed stepchild of the automotive business. Especially in America, customers have been falling all over themselves to buy light duty pickup trucks and big, hunky SUVs rather than station wagons. But you can’t fool Mother Nature and you can’t rewrite the laws of physics. There is a reason the Tesla Model S handles so well. Although its total weight is high, most of that bulk is carried low in the chassis just inches above the road.
Pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles ride high off the ground, which is good for looking down on those poor unfortunates in their Civics and Corollas in traffic but not so good for handling. A high center of gravity means they roll like a schooner in a full gale during cornering. There are other disadvantages. For those who like to take bicycles, kayaks, canoes, or skis along with them, the extra height makes getting all that paraphernalia strapped down to a roof rack more difficult.
At the Geneva auto show last week, Porsche showed off its latest offering, the Panamera Sport Turismo — a station wagon version of the Panamera sedan. Mercedes showcased its all new AMG E63 S wagon and Volvo featured its svelte V90 wagon. All are coming to the US, even though total wagon sales here totaled just over 77,000 units — about the same number of F 150 pickups Ford sells in a month.
Why the renewed interest in wagons? For one thing, those that do get sold generate handsome profits for the manufacturer. The Mercedes E Class wagon stickers for 20% more than the base E Class sedan, even though they are basically the same car. “From B-pillar forward, it’s basically the same as a sedan,” says Senior Analyst StephanieBrinley of IHS Markit. “Compared to developing a whole new model, it’s not that hard to make a wagon.”
Wagon customers are also fiercely loyal to their vehicles. When it’s trade-in time, they are more likely to buy another than the owners of any other vehicle type. In general, wagon buyers are more educated and more affluent than other buyers. For marketers, the segment is a no brainer. These are people who will buy another similar car with a minimum of promotional effort. “It’s a great customer for us,” said Dana Headrick, product manager at Mercedes Benz USA.
Volkswagen’s new SportWagen and Alltrack are proving particularly popular with cyclists and kayakers, according to Hendrik Muth, head of product planning at Volkswagen of America. Their roof racks are easier to access than those on an SUV and there is still plenty of space in back for the gear that goes with those sports. “The buyer is slightly more male and more sports-oriented,” Muth says.
Wait, aren’t SUVs supposed to appeal to the “active lifestyle” crowd? Maybe. Or maybe they appeal to those who wish they had an active lifestyle. Some in the industry are starting to talk about “SUV fatigue.” What’s hot and what’s not in the automotive world is subject to change, just like hair styles and the latest in high fashion body piercing jewelry.
There was a time when every American family had 2.3 kids, a dog, and a station wagon. Then the minivan craze was born, only to flame out after a while. Hatchbacks caught the eye of consumers for a while but are now as popular as Noam Chomsky at a Trump rally. Could the white hot flame pumping up SUV and pickup truck sales be weakening, if only slightly? If so, Mercedes, Volvo, and Porsche stand ready to meet the demand and reap the financial rewards.
Source: Automotive News Photo credit: Newspress