Wagons come in three sizes: compact, midsize and large. Market segments include economy, crossover, luxury and sport. Some models don't fit neatly into any one group.
Compacts range from economy models that start in the low teens and top off in the low $20,000s, while luxury models run from the mid $20,000s to around $40,000. Midsize wagons start in the low $20,000s and can reach beyond $60,000. Large wagons are either luxury models or crossovers, but expect to pay between $25,000 and $35,000 for family-oriented models and anywhere from $40,000-$60,000 for luxury models.
This group includes four-, five-, six- and eight-cylinder engines, and turbocharged versions are common. Wagons are capable of 20 mpg, but high-powered wagons often dip below that.
Family shoppers should check the availability of features like antilock brakes, front- and rear-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and stability control. Features like rearview cameras, parking sensors and knee airbags are becoming increasingly available, while premium brands are utilizing high-tech electronics to warn inattentive drivers of blind-spot intrusion and impending collisions. Shoppers should be aware of crash test scores, but it should be noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently adopted more strenuous testing procedures, so the ratings of models tested in the distant past aren't necessarily comparable to the new standards.
Luxuries like automatic climate control, heated seats, iPod interfaces, navigation systems, keyless start and Bluetooth capability can often be found in non-luxury wagons. For more family-oriented models, keep in mind features like seating arrangements and special storage solutions for cargo.
Most wagons can seat four adults in comfort; five are possible if children are involved. How much room these passengers have depends on the type of wagon. Traditional wagons are the same size as their sedan counterparts, while newer crossoverlike wagons have a greater amount of room. Only Mercedes still offers an old-school rear-facing third-row seat, but with the advent of crossover wagons, front-facing third-row seats that fold into the floor are now available.
Though many wagons come standard with all-wheel drive, consumers should only pay extra if they regularly drive in situations where traction is an issue, whether this means snow or light-duty off-road conditions. While modern all-wheel-drive systems are relatively lightweight and fuel-efficient, fuel economy might be a fraction less than with a conventional front- or rear-wheel-drive setup. All-wheel drive can also enhance control during high-speed maneuvers, adding a dimension of high-performance capability.
Wagons offer a flat load floor with a reasonable liftover height, but overall capacity is not as much as you'd expect unless the vehicle is packed all the way to the ceiling. Convenient access — not sheer cargo volume — is the key attribute here. To increase cargo capacity, look for such features as roof racks, under-floor storage, grocery nets, cargo tie-downs and cargo mats.
Carlike wagons are typically cheaper to operate than larger crossover SUVs, and prove more agile and maneuverable in everyday driving. A minivan hauls more people and an SUV totes more cargo, but a wagon is easier and more natural to drive.
Wagons that cost less than $30,000 are a good bet for budget-minded consumers, since they combine good utility with sensible operating costs, not to mention optimal fuel economy.