Welcome Back, Carters

Welcome Back, Carters

Ask anyone over 30 to describe the family vacations of their youth and you will likely get at least one common element: the station wagon. Almost regardless of race, religion, income bracket or geographic region, if you grew up in America between 1950 and 1985, you likely spent at least a certain percentage of your childhood riding between two sheets of wood paneling (be they real or simulated) and underneath one roof rack. For decades, these vehicles were seen as the perfect solutions to cargo and kid carting (not to be confused with "karting," which is about as far from carting the kids around in a station wagon as you can get).

My earliest family trip memories involve sitting on the brown vinyl of a yellow 1972 Mercury Monterey station wagon. This particular Monterey was unique in that my dad bought it in Canada, because only the Canadian models could be had with a manual transmission (a four-speed manual that was operated via a column-mounted shifter). It only took a couple of replaced clutches for Dad to realize why big, heavy station wagons that commonly go over mountain passes (and are regularly driven by a spouse not big on shift-it-yourself trannies) should probably only possess two pedals.

The Monterey's replacement came in the form of a fully loaded 1976 Plymouth wagon, whose curb weight of 4,400 pounds was only exceeded by the weightiness of its model name: Grand Fury Sport Suburban. This one had Chrysler's venerable Torqueflight automatic hooked up to a big block V8, along with the even more venerable fake wood paneling that was a staple of 1970s American family transportation. And, like the simulated wood paneling on thousands of other station wagons roaming the American highways at the time, it began peeling off before the end of our first road trip from Denver to Vancouver back in the summer of 1976.

This was the first real luxury vehicle my father had ever purchased. He had ordered a stripped Dodge Monaco wagon, but when it failed to materialize in time for our planned vacation, the dealer offered us the loaded-up Plymouth (a demo model with only a few hundred miles) at the same price. And yes, the dealership scene in the movie Vacation was eerily similar to my dad's experience but, thankfully, most of the other scenes weren't. The model we got had a third-row seat that folded into the floor, along with power windows, cruise control, air conditioning and a tailgate that could open sideways or swing down and lay flat, depending on which way you pulled the release latch. All pretty trick features in 1976.

In the 28 years since, I've watched the rise (and fall, at least in terms of "cool") of the minivan, as well as the rise (and clearly the first signs of a backlash against) the SUV. During this same period, the station wagon all but disappeared. Chrysler essentially replaced its wagon offering with the world's first minivans in 1984, while GM dumped its last full-size wagon, the Buick Roadmaster, in 1996. Even Ford, a company that still offers the V8, rear-engine Crown Victoria, dropped the wagon version in 1991. "What about the imports?" you say? Toyota abandoned its only station wagon in 1997, while Honda did the same thing in 1998, leaving only the Europeans Ford (Taurus/Sable) and Subaru (Legacy) to carry the station wagon torch through the mid-1990s.

Ah, but humans have a way of dredging up the past, for better or for worse. And while some of us will never think disco is cool (no matter how many radio station programming hours or VH-1 specials are devoted to it), I can confidently announce the return of the station wagon as a hip form of transportation. Oh sure, the PR folks will likely have you "eliminated" for using such a term around their vehicles, but look past the marketing spin and a familiar shape appears.

I'm going to give Audi (one of a few companies that never fully abandoned the station wagon) credit with what I consider the first modern interpretation of the station wagon — the 2001 allroad quattro. Yeah, in reality it's just an A6 with funky styling and adjustable suspension bits, but by marketing it as an "activity" vehicle, the allroad became so much more. Suddenly, you weren't just buying a station wagon for practical purposes, you were buying one because, dammit, you need such a versatile form of transportation to keep up with your "active" lifestyle. Heck, it even gets away with not using a capital letter at the beginning of its name. If only Ford could have come up with such marketing brilliance 10 years earlier, we might never have lost the Cou… excuse me, I mean the country squire.

The next stage of station wagon revival, at least as I see it, was the 2002 Mazda Protegé5. Like Audi, Mazda kept the Protegé5 from appearing too "domesticated" by wrapping the car in a svelte shape and giving it a cool name. "This is not a station wagon," the PR types told us. "This is a five-door." Ah, a five-door. Of course! Too bad Buick didn't see this coming. The "Roadmaster5" has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Mazda's Protegé5 was just hitting the streets when Chrysler announced its "next big thing" at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show: the Chrysler Pacifica. Chrysler's top execs assured us that this was to be a true "segment buster" that would redefine the industry much the way its minivans had done 18 years earlier. It would have three rows of seats, a powerful engine and plenty of luxury features. The rear seats, they beamed, will even fold down for increased versatility! "Sort of like the 1976 Plymouth Grand Fury Sport Suburban?" yours truly couldn't help thinking. But this one has all-wheel drive, which really makes it an allroad quattro with extra seating. Either way, I don't see it as a "segment buster" but I am glad to see Chrysler back in the station wagon game.

If you need a clearer sign that the station wagon is back, look to Volvo and its new XC90. Though obviously a station wagon (it's even based off the V70 platform), one publication has taken to calling it an "SUV of the Year." Whatever. It's a "people carter" in the great tradition of people carters, meaning that it excels at providing comfort, versatility and safety. If you must refer to it as a "crossover" vehicle to make yourself feel better about buying it, that's fine with me.

And finally, to punctuate the newfound potential of station wagons, Dodge unveiled the Magnum SRT-8 concept at the 2003 Los Angeles International Auto Show. This one doesn't offer raised ride height like the allroad or XC90, but it does have rear-wheel drive and an available supercharged Hemi V8 that makes 430 horsepower. Now remember, this one is a "sports tourer" not a station wagon. And while the Magnum's sweeping roofline is hardly reminiscent of my archetypal station wagon, a powerful V8 engine and rear-wheel drive put this vehicle within a swing-out rear tailgate of my 1976 Plymouth, at least philosophically.

Between this new breed of wagons and the ongoing sales of minivans and SUVs, it looks like we're going to have more "carters" driving around than ever before, thus proving the old saying, "What goes around, comes around."

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