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 2009 occupy a niche of sorts. There's still a decent selection of inexpensive small wagons available as well as a sprinkling of midsize offerings, but by and large most wagons are now from premium- or luxury-brand European automakers.
Although they're typically not the most alluring vehicles available, inexpensive wagons are still tops for bang-for-the-buck practicality. Their small size makes them easy (and sometimes even fun) to drive, yet many offer close to SUV levels of cargo space with their rear seats folded down. For this year's group, our top recommended choice is the 2009 Kia Rondo. With four-cylinder or available V6 power, available seven-passenger seating, a high-quality interior and a comprehensive warranty, this unassuming Kia is a great vehicle for young families.
For a shopper interested in a small wagon with more pizzazz than the Rondo, the Pontiac Vibe would be another excellent choice. Fully redesigned for 2009, the Vibe, along with its mechanical twin, the Toyota Matrix, boasts a spacious and well-built interior. All-wheel drive is available, as is a sporty GT version. If none of the above choices works for you, others to consider include the retro-themed Chevrolet HHR and the hip-to-be-square Scion xB.
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. Most significant is the all-new 2009 Ford Flex. Purposely designed to combine attributes of an SUV, minivan and wagon, the Flex offers seating for up to seven passengers, a high-quality interior, upscale features and an exterior shape so boxy it's actually cool.
Another, more traditional wagon choice for under $30,000 would be the 2009 Volkswagen Passat. VW has tinkered with the Passat this year, discontinuing the V6 engine and some previously available high-end features. The Passat is still a very desirable and practical midsize wagon, however, and its standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine is powerful enough that you won't miss the V6. One other midsize wagon we recommend is the Subaru Outback, which offers all-wheel drive and SUV-like styling cues. Note that the Dodge Magnum, a previous favorite of ours, has been discontinued.
In this segment you'll typically find luxury automakers' small wagons. Out of this group, the newly redesigned Audi A4 is one of our top recommended choices. The A4 Avant (Audispeak for wagon) is an excellent choice thanks to its sleek design, premium cabin materials, standard all-wheel drive and choice of a turbocharged four-cylinder or V6 engine.
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 2009. Offered as the 328i or all-wheel-drive 328i xDrive, 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, take a look at the Volvo V70.
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 535i xDrive, is available. Equally recommended is the E-Class. Offered as the V6-powered E350 4Matic (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.