From the June 1999 issue of Car and Driver.
Conventional wisdom: Wagons don’t sell.
Unconventional wisdom: Once the symbol of postwar family transportation, the car-based wagon fell from favor in the 1980s and 1990s because of competition from minivans and sport-utility vehicles, but it’s now showing signs of a modest sale resurgence in the luxury market as image-conscious buyers look for alternatives to dowdy minivans and environmentally questionable SUVs.
No? Consider that in 1979, of the 33 automakers selling car in North America, 22 of them offered car-based wagons. By 1990, that number had shrunk to 16 of 45 automakers, and by last year, it had fallen to nine of 39. Yet this year, from the same pool of 39 automakers, 13 offer car-based wagons. Could this be a hint of a trend?
Perhaps it’s merely a sign that a portion of the market—albeit a small one—is returning to its senses. Longtime readers of this magazine know we’ve never been wild about minivans and SUVs. They’re less efficient than cars, and typically they handle, brake, and accelerate worse as well. If the goal is to haul more stuff, we’d consider the wagon before the minivan or the sport-ute. The 17 wagon models offered this year provide between 50 and 190 percent more cargo room than the sedans they’re based on. Accident statistics might suggest you’re safer in a heavier minivan or SUV than in any kind of car. But consider that you might be able to avoid an accident in a wagon that you wouldn’t in a clumsier-handling vehicle.
Such arguments may be gaining ground among well-heeled car buyers. Of those 13 brands offering car-based wagons this year, a disproportionate number—five—are European luxury carmakers. BMW, Volvo, and Saab, in fact, are considering additional wagons for the U.S. market.
We’ve looked at this market before. In December 1997, we compared middle-brow luxo-wagons, pitting an Audi A4 2.8 Avant Quattro against a Volvo V70 AWD. This time, it’s a battle of Eurohaulers of the highest brow. We looked for wagons in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range and found five. Audi offers the A6 2.8 Avant, based on the stylish A6 sedan that bowed in 1998. From BMW, there’s the 5-series wagon, developed from the 5-series sedan that has won comparison tests and has been a 10Best winner. Mercedes-Benz, a long-term veteran of the U.S. wagon market, serves up the wagon version of its E-class. Saab, a newcomer to this segment, offers a five-door iteration of its recently introduced 9-5 sedan. Volvo, another long-term wagon purveyor in the U.S., competes in this segment with a higher-line V70.
We sought automatic transmissions and six-cylinder engines in each car except the Volvo, which tops out with a turbo five. The wagons that showed up had window stickers ranging from $39,684 for the Audi to $55,223 for the Mercedes. That’s a wider range than we would prefer for a comparison, but it isn’t wide enough to preclude one. All A6 wagons get Quattro all-wheel drive; BMWs and Saabs come only in rear- and front-drive, respectively; and the Benz and the Volvo come with optional all-wheel drive.
We were surprised at how similarly these wagons were equipped, particularly aft of the front seats. Each car had split-folding rear seats with three adjustable headrests. The cargo areas all had multiple eyelets to secure luggage and partitions to separate flying Fidos or suitcases from passengers. All had rear-window washers and wipers, and all but the Volvo came with a cargo cover. Such consistency in features suggests that these wagons compete in a mature market of demanding customers in Europe, much as minivans do here. You’re looking at the state of the art in wagons.
Testing these munificent vehicles took us not only to DaimlerChrysler’s proving grounds but also to our beloved collection of paved curves, whoop-de-dos, and foot-to-the-floor straightaways in southeastern Ohio’s Hocking Hills. When the final scores were tallied, it was a surprisingly tight race.
Fifth Place: Saab 9-5 SE
Many automakers improve their cars by forever chasing the Holy Grail of refinement, a strategy that tends to push many designs toward a certain sameness. Not Saab, whose cars remain defiantly quirky, from the console-mounted ignition switches to the bolt-upright driving positions. Such “differentness” has cost Saab in many of our comparison tests, and it may have here. Despite its fifth-place finish, this wagon might well be worth your consideration, depending on your priorities.
HIGHS: Versatile cargo hold, an abundance of features, endearing Saab character.
LOWS: Gritty engine note, lack of refinement, annoying Saab quirks.
VERDICT: A surprisingly versatile hauler at a reasonable price.
In most respects, the Saab is in the thick of this competition. Its 3.0-liter DOHC V-6 with light-pressure turbocharging is good for 200 horsepower. Zero-to-60 sprints take 8.4 seconds, and the quarter-mile is 16.4 seconds away. Passes from 30 to 50 mph require 4.3 seconds; 50 to 70 mph requires 5.6 seconds. The 9-5’s 215/55VR-16 Michelins serve up 0.77 g of roadholding and help the Saab stop from 70 mph in 181 feet. Nearly all these track numbers, in fact, define the average performance for the group.
In some areas, the Saab wins out over the other wagons. The 9-5 SE’s $37,564 base price and $40,044 as-tested price are second-lowest of the five tabs, yet this wagon takes first place in features and cargo utility. Even base 9-5 models have headlamp washers and wipers, quad front sun visors, a CD player (with a Harman/Kardon stereo), and cargo-floor tie-downs that can be adjusted on tracks to accommodate varying cargo sizes. None of the other wagons is so equipped. Cargo volume is close to the average for the wagons, but the 9-5 is capable of towing 3000 pounds, second only to the Volvo’s 3300-pound towing capacity. There is an optional slide-out load floor that can support up to 440 pounds for easier packing and superior tailgate parties. This is the only car to have a rigid, fold-up cargo cover that can support light loads. Automatic load leveling was the only meaningful cargo-related feature missing on the Saab.
This was the best-handling 9-5 we’ve driven, wagon or sedan. Aggressive driving didn’t incite the porpoising and bouncing we remember from previous 9-5s. The engine makes a coarse groan when flogged, but it produces satisfying surges of thrust without boost lag. The Saab turned in 21 mpg on our 650-mile trip, tying the BMW for best of the pack.
About that “differentness.” Some of it is benign, like the handy but noisy front-seat fans that cool your backside, or the black-panel display switch that darkens all instruments except the speedometer. Other quirks are more annoying. The seats are comfortable while driving in a straight line, but in curves, the side bolsters seem to disappear, forcing you to brace your legs against the door and console. The door pockets are so tiny that they’re useful only for holding small change and candy bars. Some quirks reflect a lack of refinement. The steering is affected by slight changes in power. The shifter lever squirms in its track when you move it. Bumps make the steering wheel and floorpan shiver slightly.
These are hard-to-excuse deficiencies in a spanking-new design, but this Saab is hardly a loser. Just six points separate it from the first-place finisher. It has a few loose ends that need tying up, but if hauling flexibility is your priority, the 9-5 deserves a hard look.
1999 Saab 9-5 SE
200-hp turbocharged V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3750 lb
Base/as-tested price: $37,564/$40,044
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.4 sec
1/4 mile: 16.4 sec @ 84 mph
100 mph: 23.9 sec
120 mph: 44.5 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 181 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.77 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Fourth Place: Volvo V70R AWD
The Volvo V70 has been around for just a couple of years, but its boxy body gives away this car’s age—its design is an update of the 850, which was introduced nearly eight years ago. Its genes may be older, but that doesn’t mean the V70 can’t put up a good fight. That’s particularly true if it comes in racy, all-wheel-drive “R” form, like our test car—the most expensive V70 Volvo offers.
HIGHS: Rip-roaring turbo five-cylinder, no-surprises all-wheel-drive handling, airy interior within tidy exterior.
LOWS: Runs out of grip too quickly, sparse features, the look is getting old.
VERDICT: The boy-racer of Eurowagons.
This is the hot-dog of the group, if you couldn’t already tell by its electric-blue paint job, its rocker panel skirts, and its big chrome exhaust pipe. The R’s thrust comes from the most powerful five-cylinder Volvo makes—a turbocharged 2.3-liter DOHC unit good for 246 horsepower. It’s an engine with character, constantly whooping and hissing with every change in boost pressure and singing a dual-note song. “Sort of a French horn noise, where the others are more like alto saxes,” noted Markus in the logbook. The Volvo whipped the pack in every acceleration test, hauling itself to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds and on to a steamy 141-mph top speed. But braking and roadholding trailed the group. “Runs out of grip fast,” noted a driver. One of the V70R’s options is lower-profile Michelin Pilot MXM tires, which our car did not have; they would have improved traction and response. Still, this wagon is terrific fun to tear around in.
The V70R all-wheel-drive system works well for hauling, too. This wagon casts the smallest shadow of the five and has the most diminutive wheelbase, at 104.9 inches. Yet we ranked its rear seat second—by a slim margin—to the big Mercedes’ in accommodations. The cargo area is sparsely appointed and lacks a cover, but the seats fold forward to make a flat load floor. For towing, the Volvo beats the other wagons, able to pull an impressive 3300 pounds.
Inside, the seats, with cross-stitched suede inserts, were sporty-looking and grippy. The V70′ beltline is low, allowing a good view out for kid in car seats. “Very airy feel in here, lots of glass,” noted Idzikowski. All four outboard passengers get side airbags, but rear-seat passengers don’t have A/C vents or reading lights. The fit and finish inside seemed a step below that of the three German wagons, too.
Those weren’t the only areas where we saw room for improvement. We were surprised to find that, even with all-wheel drive, some torque steer could be felt when the boost ramped up. The precise shifter lacked a manumatic gate—no big deal—but it also lacked a detent for second gear, hard to excuse in a car with such an athletic bent. The ride was the stiffest of the group, and as with the Saab, some body flex was evident over broken pavement. Some drivers didn’t like the Volvo’s turbo lag, others were turned off by the V70’s boxy look, and a few more were annoyed by the immovable headrests that brushed the backs of their scalps.
Although it could use some sprucing up inside and out, the Volvo is a hit in the fun-to-drive category, particularly at its price.
1999 Volvo V70R AWD
246-hp turbocharged inline-5, 4-speed automatic, 3732 lb
Base/as-tested price: $42,328/$42,328
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.6 sec
1/4 mile: 15.9 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 20.9 sec
120 mph: 32.0 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg
Third Place: Audi A6 2.8 Avant Quattro
The Audi A6 2.8 Avant Quattro makes a great first impression. From its clean and sensuous body cut-lines to its soothing earth-tone and walnut interior, this wagon is a feast for the eyes. It’s also easier on the wallet than the other wagons. The only significant option our loaded-up A6 lacked was leather seats, but its price still came in under $40,000.
It makes good impressions at the first turn of the wheel, too. Audi’s novel four-link front suspension endows the steering with precise feel and quick response. Ride motions are properly damped, and the body feels tight. The controls, from the shifter to the stereo buttons, move precisely. It’s a feel of sophistication.
HIGHS: Artful styling, precise handling, smooth ride, good value.
LOWS: Tight-fitting interior, even slower than its curb weight would suggest.
VERDICT: A classy, well-equipped, sophisticated wagon that needs
more oomph underhood.
Step on the gas, though, and you’re left wanting. Audi’s DOHC five-valve-per cylinder 2.8-liter V-6 certainly isn’t lacking in technology. Nor is it lacking in power—its 200 hp matches the Saab’s and tops the BMW’s. At 19.7 pounds per horsepower, the Audi’s power-to-weight ratio betters the BMW’s, yet driveline friction and gearing make this the slowest-accelerating wagon here by a wide margin. The 0-to-60 dash takes 9.6 seconds, at least a second longer than it takes the other wagons. Passing times are a similar story. “Needs more engine,” one driver complained. “Sluggish when passing,” wrote another.
Mitigating the slow go somewhat is the five-speed automatic transmission, which shifted smoothly and decisively at all times. The A6 had the only manumatic shifter of the gang, which nearly every driver found helpful in extracting maximum juice from minimalist engine. “Helps keep up the fun factor when the engine is laboring, which isn’t infrequently,” wrote a driver.
As with the Mercedes and Volvo, the Audi’s four-wheel drive worked unobtrusively and was a particular help in sharp turns with early-spring road marbles. Roadholding grip was a middling 0.75 g, but the Audi’s 59.6-mph speed through our emergency lane change was second only to the racy Volvo.
The A6 Avant’s cargo hold is as beautifully finished as the passenger area, with chrome tie-down rings sunk neatly into rich carpeting beneath a matching carpeted mat. It tied for last place, though, in cargo utility. The Audi’s rear seats don’t make a flat load floor when folded forward. The cargo area held the fewest beer cases in our cargo-hauling tests, and as in the Saab, automatic load leveling isn’t available. The A6 does come, however, with a handy cargo cover and an elastic net to secure loose items. The roll-out partition separating cargo from passengers can also be used with the seatbacks folded.
The Audi’s rear seats are more cramped, too. There’s ample room for two, but three are a squeeze.
The A6 Avant Quattro may not be the best cargo or people hauler, but it’s the most stylish. At its price, we consider this well-equipped four-wheel-driver an excellent value. If only it had more power. A V-8 will be offered soon in the A6 sedan but not in the wagon, Audi says. Mistake, we say.
1999 Audi A6 2.8 Avant Quattro
200-hp V-6, 5-speed automatic, 3938 lb
Base/as-tested price: $37,166/$39,684
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.6 sec
1/4 mile: 17.3 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 26.0 sec
120 mph: 46.0 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.75 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
Second Place: Mercedes-Benz E320 4MATIC
Like the Audi, the Mercedes creates a good first impression, but of a more reserved and serious kind. The upright grille and elliptical headlamps, the hard-to-ignore hood ornament, and the big, no-nonsense four-pillar greenhouse over smooth, unadorned flanks say “estate wagon” more effectively than has any Buick in memory.
This wagon looks expensive, and it is. The rear-wheel-drive version starts at $48,503, and the 4MATIC opens at $51,460. Our car, with a glass sunroof, a luggage rack, and a Bose sound system, came to $55,223. The five-door E320 won’t be winning any value awards from us, no matter how nice it looks.
HIGHS: Rich appointments, generous cargo hold and rear-seat accommodations, feels as though it will last forever.
LOWS: Aneurysm-inducing price, can’t tow anything.
VERDICT: Not the most exciting drive, but a beautiful, elegant and capable wagon.
But there’s substance to this car beyond the way the doors thud home when they’re shut. For starters, it’s loaded with features. Even base E-class wagons come with leather upholstery, a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, auto-dimming mirrors, and power seats with power head restraints and memory (including mirror position). This is the only wagon with a standard third bench, and the only one with Baby Smart, a sensor that turns off the front and side passenger airbags when a Mercedes-approved child seat is detected. The powerful Bose sound system lacks a CD player, hard to accept at this price.
It’s well equipped for hauling almost anything but a trailer, too. The Mercedes cargo bay will accept at least seven more cubic feet of stuff than will the other wagons with their seats up, and 10 more cubes with the rear seats folded forward. Also thrown in are a roll-out, two-position partition net; a roll-out cargo cover; 10 cargo tie-downs; and the group’s only standard third-row seat (Audi offers one for $700). Oddly, the E320 wagon isn’t rated for towing capacity because the company doesn’t offer an approved hitch—an absurd omission in a wagon.
This is a great car to ride in. Everyone who climbed into the Mercedes was struck by its biscuit-hued leather and burled walnut trim. The rear seat was the most roomy and comfortable of the group, but road noise was louder back there than we remembered in the sedan. At least the ride was faultless.
The E320 was slightly less inspiring to drive. The powertrain is certainly up to the task. Its 221-hp, 18-valve V-6 and five-speed automatic work together seamlessly. Quick throttle response and a broad torque curve provide ample acceleration to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds. The automatic’s shifting adapts to aggressive driving, too, so none of us missed a manumatic. And yet hustling around curves and corners just didn’t seem to be the E320’s style, despite this wagon’s strong brakes and better-than-average grip of 0.79 g. The Mercedes weighs in at a chart-topping 3954 pounds, a fact that even the most astute engineering can’t hide. “More of a highway cruiser than a sporty wagon,” wrote one editor. “Little in the driving experience makes me want to push harder,” wrote another.
This wagon’s elegant style, ample room, and sturdy confidence made for a second-place finish. But it wasn’t a close race for first. It might have been if the E320 drove with more flair and had a more digestible price.
1999 Mercedes-Benz E320 4MATIC
221-hp V-6, 5-speed automatic, 3954 lb
Base/as-tested price: $51,460/$55,223
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.2 sec
1/4 mile: 16.4 sec @ 86 mph
100 mph: 23.2 sec
120 mph: 40.8 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 181 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg
First Place: BMW 528i
BMW’s 528i is a wagon that grows on you. It’s unremarkable at first. At moderate speeds, its steering is thoughtlessly natural. Part-throttle shifts are smooth, and the ride is quiet and composed. The engine hums distantly. The body—with its twin-kidney grille and round headlamps and its lean flanks pulled aft to a tidy ducktail —is handsome but so familiar it’s almost forgettable, particularly when dressed in the dark blue of our test car.
But ambivalence fades the more you drive the 528i. The first thing that strikes you is its composure. The structure feels at least as tight as the Audi’s, possibly tighter. Whatever you drive over, at whatever speed, the suspension absorbs even the smallest shock without complaint. Body motions are expertly damped. The 528i steers with the tenacity of a Tomahawk cruise missile, maintaining its intended line over abrupt topography changes as if they simply weren’t there.
HIGHS: Laser-guided steering, unflappable chassis, ample cornering and braking grip, slick and efficient driveline.
LOWS: Price a bit dear, smallish cargo hold, towing not allowed.
VERDICT: An adept, carefully crafted driving machine that can pull wagon double-duty.
The engine is a DOHC 2.8-liter aluminum inline six that’s new for the 5-series. It emits a crisp, lively hum under the whip and churns out 193 horsepower. With 3851 pounds to haul, its 20.0-pounds-per-horsepower burden is the heaviest of the pack. Yet this family hauler hustles to 60 mph in just 8.1 seconds, second only to the speedy Volvo. The automatic has just four gears, but their ratios are properly spaced, and shifts are quick and no-nonsense firm under full throttle. This is an efficient driveline. Our 528i averaged 21 miles per gallon—tying the Saab for the best of the bunch.
This BMW wagon had a $5088 Sport Premium package, which lowers ride height by 0.8 inch and includes striking 17-inch lace alloys wrapped by fat 235/45ZR-17 Dunlops. It was certainly a factor in the BMW’s short 172-foot braking distance from 70 mph, as well the BMW’s class-leading 0.81 g on the skidpad. It may have helped this BMW nail first place in fun-to-drive, too.
But a wagon has to be more than a grin machine. The BMW is not the best cargo carrier. Its hold is one of the least voluminous. When folded, the rear-seat cushions don’t form a flat load floor, and that load floor is the second smallest of the pack. On the other hand, the 528i can carry the longest length of pipe (135 inches), and it’s the only wagon with a convenient separate glass hatch in the tailgate. Like the Saab, our test car came with a handy pullout load floor, a $403 option. Towing capacity isn’t available “for liability reasons,” says BMW. We’d love to be a fly on the dealership wall when a customer hears that.
Our wagon’s front sport seats ($504) offered exceptional support for brisk drives, but we would have gladly traded adjustable thigh support for a lumbar adjustment. The rear seats were average in room and comfort. Whoever ends up back there will like our car’s rear-seat window shades, part of a $382 rear-seat package.
All these packages add up. With our car’s optional automatic, the spin-control system, and a power sunroof, the 528i rang up a $50,639 price. For this hauler’s impressive resume, you must pay.
But impressive it is. The 528i serves up decent hauling ability in an exceptionally efficient and fun-to-drive package. That’s our kind of wagon.
1999 BMW 528i
193-hp inline-6, 4-speed automatic, 3851 lb
Base/as-tested price: $41,586/$50,639
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.1 sec
1/4 mile: 16.3 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 22.7 sec
120 mph: 41.5 sec
Braking, 70-0 mph: 172 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg
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