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While most Americans these days prefer to use minivans, crossovers and SUVs to meet their family-hauling needs, the wagon remains a smart choice for the savvy shopper. The selection may not be as vast as it was decades ago, but there are still great options to be had. 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.
The Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen is our top pick for this category, thanks to its versatility, huge cargo space, comfortable seats and refined ride. In the realm of pure wagons in this price range, it doesn't have much competition. If you're looking for top-notch fuel economy, you can have it with the diesel-powered TDI version, rated at 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway. But since this TDI model also has an MSRP of $25,260, you'll also have left this price bracket. In terms of safety, the Jetta Sportwagen earned four of five stars in the rollover test conducted by the federal government. (It was not rated in other tests.) The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2011 Jetta Sportwagen a Top Safety Pick.
If you're not wedded to purity in wagon design, consider our second-highest recommended wagon, the Kia Soul, whose funky styling gets some smoothing, a more powerful engine and a six-speed manual transmission for the 2012 model year. The Soul is aimed at the youth market, and its illuminated speaker surrounds that pulse with music pretty much tell the story. But with ample passenger space, a very affordable price and a generous warranty, it's far from a fad-mobile. It also earned four of five stars in the federal rollover test, and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick.
Our third-highest scores went to the Subaru Outback, an all-wheel-drive wagon that has a lot of appeal for drivers whose trips aren't confined to pavement. The Outback offers a spacious interior, crossover-besting cargo space, a comfortable ride, excellent safety scores (four of five stars for overall safety in federal testing for the 2011 model year and an IIHS Top Safety Pick) and commendable off-road performance for a wagon.
The no-doubt winner here is the Acura TSX Sport Wagon. It features a sizable number of standard and technology features, sporty handling and, befitting Acura's reputation, excellent build and materials quality. It also delivers on interior space, since there are nearly 61 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down. That's better than both the pricier Audi A4 Avant and the BMW 3 Series wagon. The Acura TSX Sport Wagon comes standard with a 201-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-4 engine and five-speed automatic transmission. It's also a spirited ride thanks to its sport-tuned suspension. On the safety front, the Sport Wagon earned a five-star rollover rating from the federal testing program (the only component rated). The Acura TSX was rated Good in frontal-offset and side impact tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
If you're looking for another option in this bracket with comparable pricing and fuel economy, you might take a look at the Volvo V50, the wagon version of Volvo's S40 sedan. It beats the TSX wagon by delivering 2 more cubic feet of cargo space with its rear seats folded, and boasts excellent seats and a refined interior. A demerit is handling that's not quite what you'd expect from a true sport wagon.
There aren't many wagons to choose from in this price category, but thankfully the few models here are very good. Our top pick is the stylish Audi A4 Avant. Blessed with sleek styling and a high-quality interior, the A4 is as luxurious as any other entry-level luxury car you'll find. The A4's standard turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers both high fuel economy and quick acceleration. The A4 also comes standard with all-wheel drive, a definite plus for shoppers living in wet or snowy climes. The car's sleek exterior owes a lot to its steeply raked rear window, and that window cuts into luggage space a little. But overall it's a pretty minor drawback for an otherwise excellent wagon.
Another keen choice is the Cadillac CTS Wagon. Similar to the A4, the CTS boasts handsome styling and an upscale interior. With ample cargo room and comfortable accommodations, the CTS also offers all the practicality one expects from a wagon. Other high points include impressive performance (particularly with the 3.6-liter V6) and a long list of available luxury features. All-wheel drive is also available for shoppers in need of extra traction.
Even in the age of the luxury crossover SUV, the luxury wagon still appeals to us. Our top pick here for a general wagon is the Mercedes-Benz E350 wagon. Just like the E-Class sedan, the wagon offers a sublime ride and handling balance, a meticulously constructed interior and innovative safety features. At the same time, the E350 wagon also offers a rear-facing third-row seat, challenging the seven-passenger supremacy of crossovers. This year's E350 is even better, as Mercedes has upgraded the 3.5-liter V6 to produce a more substantial 302 horsepower.
If more horsepower from your wagon is desired ("Honey, I really need something like this so I can get the kids to school on time."), Mercedes still has you covered with the E63 AMG wagon. This variant maintains the inherent strengths of the E350 but builds upon them with a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 that cranks out 518 hp. If that's not enough, Cadillac kindly obliges with its CTS-V Wagon. It's pretty much the same as the regular CTS Wagon, but under the hood is a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that produces 556 hp. And like other CTS-V variants, the wagon gets the full performance treatment, including upgraded suspension and brakes, more aggressive styling and sport front seats.