The market for station wagons is sort of like the typical American male's hairline: It keeps receding with each year that passes. Most Americans these days prefer to use minivans, crossovers and SUVs to meet their family-hauling needs. As such, most of the choices for wagons are in two groups: inexpensive small wagons on the bottom end and higher-end wagons from luxury automakers. No matter which you choose, though, today's wagon still has many enviable attributes, including secure handling, respectable fuel economy and plenty of practicality.
Volkswagen is known for producing vehicles that measure up pretty nicely when it comes to Germanic refinement, and the Jetta SportWagen is no exception. Aside from being the only traditional wagon in this admittedly small price category, this VW is also far and away the most polished entrant. Its agreeable road manners make tedious commutes more pleasant, and its cabin transcends economy-car expectations with tasteful design and high-grade materials. Still, if you're shopping for a budget wagon, keep in mind that this Jetta's starting price of almost $20 grand makes it one of the costlier entrants in this segment.
Those seeking a more affordable choice will want to check out the offbeat Kia Soul, one of three funky models that bridge the gap between hatchback and wagon (Nissan Cube and Scion xB being the others). Long on warranty and short on price, Kias are known for being sensible, frugal choices, but the Soul steps things up a notch by adding flair and personality to the mix. With its bold, angular sheet metal and extensive list of custom options, the Soul makes a statement that has nothing to do with its bargain-basement price.
How much do we love the Ford Flex? Every editor picked it in this segment, so as far as votes go, the Flex outdistanced its runner-up by a significant margin. Its most distinctive distinctive attribute is its boxy, imposing sheet metal; not since the Dodge Magnum has there been such an assertive-looking wagon. Things are just as appealing within the cabin, thanks to an interior that's both well-finished and spacious. There's generous cargo capacity, and even third-row passengers get comfortable, roomy seating. Solid and smooth on the road, the big Flex also offers the sort of forgiving ride quality that many look for in a family hauler.
The Subaru Outback is a product of the times; the current generation is bigger than ever, reflecting the trend toward larger, more spacious vehicles. Like the Flex, it offers lots of room for both passengers and cargo, along with a pleasant ride. Additionally, the all-wheel-drive Outback acquits itself fairly well on off-pavement jaunts, making it a solid choice for those who need a family hauler that can get a bit dirty. With its standard four-cylinder engine, the Outback is also quite fuel-efficient and boasts impressive range.
Once again, there aren't many wagons to choose from in this price category, but the few choices are at least good ones. Our top choice was unanimous, with the Audi A4 Avant standing out with a generous amount of European panache. Thanks to its lean, low sheet metal, the Avant is as sleek and sexy a wagon as we've ever seen; it's not just a good-looking wagon, it's a good-looking car, period. Its cabin is just as visually appealing, boasting elegant design and top-quality materials everywhere you look. This Audi also feels reassuringly secure on the road, and delivers outstanding fuel economy.
The CTS Sport Wagon is in many ways emblematic of Cadillac's recent evolution from also-ran to genuine contender. With ample cargo room and comfortable accommodations, the CTS offers all the practicality one expects from a wagon. Other high points include impressive performance, a handsome cabin and a long list of available luxury features.
In true BMW fashion, the 3 Series wagon shines as the segment's most formidable athlete. With unfailingly sharp reflexes and an inline-6 good for 230 horsepower, this 3 Series does a better job of delivering a more engaging driving experience than any other choice in this price range. Practical concerns are also taken care of, since the wagon comes with accommodating seating and lots of room in back for cargo.
Even in the age of the crossover SUV, the luxury wagon still appeals to us. It combines the refinement of a cross-country grand touring car with the practicality of everyday utility, delivering agility, easy maneuverability and fuel-efficiency in a way that a tall crossover cannot. Even better, a wagon has an enduring style that doesn't go out of fashion.
Just as with the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, the E-Class wagon offers all the features and options that once were exclusive to the premium S-Class, which helps to make this wagon a very premium vehicle indeed. At the same time, the E-Class wagon offers a rear-facing third-row seat, challenging the seven-passenger supremacy of crossovers. The Benz's 3.5-liter V6 doesn't quite match the car's image of exclusivity, yet this wagon's overall refinement and spaciousness helps it prevail as the best in the segment.
The Audi A6 Avant comes close to the Mercedes in presentation, as the cabin reflects Audi's impeccable sense of design and quality. All-wheel drive is standard equipment, while the standard 3.2-liter V6 matches the Mercedes V6 for power, and the optional, supercharged 3.0-liter V6 surpasses the Benz's output. The Avant drives more like a GT car than the Benz, but it also has the cargo capacity of one as well, as the Avant's sleek roofline compromises its interior volume.