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With drivers still very enthusiastic about utility vehicles and crossovers, fewer wagons are on the road than ever before. Nevertheless, the wagon occupies a worthy niche in the vehicle market. In fact, the wagon remains a smart choice for the savvy shopper. It's as comfortable, easy to handle and fuel-efficient as a car because it is a car. Meanwhile, the easy access to a compact cargo space with a flat load floor offers useful cargo hauling on a more practical scale. Even better, the wagon has just the right look of personality and utility that never goes out of style. Most of the choices for wagons are in two groups: inexpensive small wagons on the bottom end and higher-end wagons from luxury automakers.
Wagons are the unsung heroes of the motoring world. Consider the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen. It's our top pick in this category of affordable wagons for its seemingly perfect blend of a cavernous cargo area (67 cubic feet with the rear seat folded down), admirable fuel economy (especially with the turbodiesel model), upscale interior accommodations and a composed ride largely free of noise and ride harshness. To take advantage of the turbodiesel TDI model's EPA rating of 42 mpg highway, however, you'd have to stretch your budget slightly beyond $25,000. Be that as it may, the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen has few, if any, direct competitors at this price.
A quirky outlier in the wagon category worthy of a look is the Kia Soul. Its tumbled-cube design yields either plenty of room for four adults (five in a pinch) or maximum cargo capacity of just over 53 cubic feet with the second-row seat folded down. While the Soul is aimed at a younger buyer, everybody can appreciate an attractive and well-equipped interior. This wagon-style car is also one of the least expensive in its class, yet also impresses with excellent crash test scores and a highly competitive warranty. We're also impressed with its composure on the highway, where a resilient suspension keeps the Soul poised yet lively.
Subaru and wagons go hand-in-hand like Seattle and coffee houses. Until we get our hands on the forthcoming, Impreza-based 2013 Subaru XV Crosstrek, we'll be happy to recommend the larger Subaru Outback. While only half of the extensive selection of Outback wagons (12 models!) fall under the price point of $25,000, each of these affordable Subaru wagons comes with all-wheel drive, generous passenger accommodations and an SUV-like 71.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the second-row seat folded down. The Outback rides a little higher than many wagons in keeping with its all-weather, all-terrain capability, so sight lines for the driver are quite good and the ground clearance is suitable for snow or fording shallow water. Keep it simple and avoid the six-cylinder engine option and you'll be able to keep your budget intact.
One of the most recent to join the wagon train is the 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid. For years, the European market has enjoyed the C-Max's SUV-like interior space and commanding view of the road, and now it also offers the fuel economy of a hybrid sedan. The C-Max Hybrid earns up to 47 mpg in any EPA cycle (city, highway or combined). With a base price just over $25,000, you'll be able to add any number of clever and useful options to the C-Max and keep it under $35,000 with ease. Imagine how cool it would be to open the power rear hatch simply by swiping your foot beneath the rear bumper. Once open, the cargo area offers 52.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity once the second-row seat is folded down.
If on the other hand you'd prefer a traditional look and powertrain in an entry-level luxury sport wagon, we'd suggest looking at the Acura TSX wagon. It comes in one well-equipped model with one enviable Technology package option. With only a 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the TSX Wagon comes up a little short on power and prestige compared to an Audi or BMW wagon, but it comes through with maximum cargo capacity of 66.2 cubic feet with the second-row seat folded down. Even better, the Acura TSX Wagon also drives very well, delivering both the refinement that you expect from an Acura and fuel economy that you expect from a Honda.
Our top pick here is the Audi Allroad. Not to be confused with its A6-based namesake from the 2000s, this all-new Allroad is based on the smaller A4 but adds contrasting body trim and extra ground clearance to give it a Tonka-tough look. It's not a true off-roader but can navigate inclement weather and the occasional jaunt on a two-track road with ease. Inside the cabin you'll find pure comfort, with a best-in-class execution that includes leather seats and a panoramic sunroof as standard equipment. Also standard is a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive; these, plus a gutsy turbocharged engine, give the Allroad plenty of hustle without sacrificing fuel economy.
Another great choice is the Cadillac CTS wagon. We love the CTS's assertive styling, which is arguably most attractive here in wagon form. The interior is modern and luxurious, although many high-end features — like leather, navigation and ventilated seats — are only available as options or at top trim levels. While the Caddy offers more interior room than most of its competitors, rear-seat passengers may find that the steeply raked roof impinges on headroom. Power is strong, even from the base 3.0-liter V6 engine, and a variety of performance upgrades are available to spice things up, including all-wheel drive and a sport-tuned suspension.
Last year, BMW launched the all-new 3 Series sedan, and this year it's the wagon's turn. The updated sheet metal looks smart, and by some engineering sleight of hand the new version is not only larger but lighter, not only more powerful but more efficient. On the downside, the BMW 3 Series wagon also gets BMW's new electric-assisted steering, which helps trim fuel use but also unfortunately compromises the marque's signature road feel. Otherwise, the driving experience is top-notch. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard equipment, and options like all-wheel drive and navigation are plentiful but can quickly drive up the purchase price.
For decades, Mercedes-Benz has been building the world's finest luxury wagons, and the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon is no exception. No other wagon pulls off the Benz's remarkable combination of comfort, style, utility and performance. It's not cheap, though. The base E350 wagon with standard all-wheel drive starts at just under $60,000, while the top-of-the-line E63 wagon, with its hand-assembled twin-turbo V8 and other performance upgrades, tops $90 grand. As much as we love the idea of a tire-melting grocery hauler, we think the 302-hp base wagon is more than adequate for most needs; its pleasant ride and exacting build quality make running errands anything but a chore.
The Cadillac CTS-V wagon has the looks and features we love about the regular CTS wagon, plus a beastly 556-hp Corvette V8 engine stuffed under the hood. It's much more than a simple straight-line brute, though. Cadillac's sophisticated Magnetic Ride Control suspension allows the car to be both a Porsche-beater around the track and a comfortable boulevard cruiser on the way home — handy when that trip includes a grocery stop for eggs. Unlike the hot-rod Benz, the CTS-V wagon even lets you row your own gears through an available six-speed manual transmission. Starting at under $70,000, it's a relative bargain to boot.