Long ago, wagons lost their status as America's family haulers, having been edged out in favor of minivans, SUVs and, most recently, crossovers. As such, the wagons you'll encounter in 2008 occupy a niche of sorts. There's still a decent selection of inexpensive small wagons available as well as a handful of midsize offerings, but by and large most wagons are now from premium- or luxury-brand European automakers.
For the past few years, the Chevrolet HHR, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Pontiac Vibe-Toyota Matrix twins have dominated this value-oriented segment. The HHR and PT Cruiser are still distinctive standouts thanks to their retro-themed styling, and they remain very popular in terms of sales. The Vibe and Matrix have also been out for a long time and are still standouts in terms of versatility and comfort.
There are two new entries for 2008 that deserve very close attention, however. The Scion xB, a debut smash hit thanks to its hip-to-be-square styling, has been completely redesigned this year. Bigger, roomier and more powerful, the xB comes with plenty of standard equipment and is highly customizable. For less style but more practicality, there's the Kia Rondo. With available seating for up to seven people and optional V6 power, the Rondo is an appealing choice for a family-oriented small wagon.
When it comes to mainstream sedans and SUVs, the "under $30,000" bracket is a cornucopia of competing models. But wagons? Not so much. Thankfully, there are still a few solid choices for shoppers in this segment. Due to its slightly higher-than-average transaction prices, the Mazda3 no longer fits into our "under $20,000" category, but it remains one of our favorite small cars. The 3's wagon-themed hatchback body style offers enhanced cargo capacity without compromising the car's core fun-to-drive personality. There's also the Mazdaspeed Mazda3 for even more performance.
Those in need of something bigger will likely want to take a look at the Dodge Magnum. Single-handedly responsible for making wagons cool when it debuted in 2005, the Magnum continues to be an excellent large wagon for 2008, thanks to its roomy interior, distinctive styling and brawny V8 engines. For a small, upscale wagon in this price range, we recommend taking a look at the Audi A3. The A3 is Audi's entry-level model, and its hatchback body style has a svelte European look to it. The car is also fun to drive and surprisingly affordable as long as options are kept to a minimum.
In this segment you'll typically find luxury automakers' small wagons. And out of this group, the Audi A4 is one of our top recommended choices. The A4 wagon (Audi's "Avant") is an excellent choice thanks to its premium cabin materials and design, standard all-wheel drive and choice of a turbocharged four-cylinder or V6 engine. The S4 Avant -- a V8-powered, high-performance wagon -- is also offered.
Directly competing with the A4 Avant is the BMW 3 Series wagon. The 3 Series has been one of our favorite cars in the past decade, and that statement continues to hold true for 2008. Offered as the 328i or all-wheel-drive 328xi, BMW's small wagon stands above all other choices in terms of handling excellence and personality. The 3 Series and A4 are small wagons, however. For a roomier midsize wagon in this segment, the Volkswagen Passat is a very smart choice.
Only three automakers -- Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz -- offer wagons that cost more than $40,000. Within this small group, there are two wagons that stand out: the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes E-Class. Like its smaller 3 Series sibling, the 5 Series rewards drivers with exquisite handling, a polished demeanor, premium cabin furnishings and excellent build quality. Only one trim level, the all-wheel-drive 535xi, is available. Equally recommended is the E-Class. Offered as the V6-powered E350 (rear-wheel or all-wheel drive) or the outrageous V8-powered E63 AMG high-performance wagon, the E-Class wagon represents Mercedes at its best thanks to its sleek design, prestigious image and sophisticated safety features.