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BBC Autos

Other Side of the Road

Pining for European-only station wagons

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

The Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon

The Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon cuts a fine, full figure in Europe, but not in North America. (Fiat Group)

In North America, the Wagon Train effectively reached its terminus in the early to mid-1990s.

SUVs and crossovers such as the Ford Explorer, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V colonised suburban driveways, displacing the family truckster from its modest pedestal. The reasons for this shift are varied, but a broad, cynical view is simply that automakers saw bigger profits in building bigger vehicles. Wagons never commanded significant premiums over the sedans on which they were traditionally based, rendering their makers’ incentive to build them slim.

As someone who once enthusiastically scampered into the rear-facing jump seat of his parents’ 1986 Ford Taurus wagon, I have watched the inexorable march of the crossover through resigned eyes. Yet on a recent trip to Europe, resignation turned to indignation. Here is a continent where chunky Nissan X-Trails, Jeep Grand Cherokees and Hyundai Santa Fes roam freely, but in an informal survey of any streetscape, these are not the de facto family movers. That distinction continues to be enjoyed by station wagons, or estates, as they are known in Europe.

During the Italian leg of my journey, a torrid affair with the Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon was rekindled. The fadeaway character line still ran from nose to tail just like it did in 2000, when the car went on sale in Europe and Latin America (but not in North America of course, which Alfa left in the mid-1990s). The pillars connecting roof to body were slim and elegant, with the C-pillars neatly disguising the rear door handles. And the profile communicated an indelible, pleasing car-ness: refreshing, given the rising beltlines, beefier pillars and sandwiched window glass common of crossover design.

The 156 Sportwagon would still have been a singular pleasure, had it not been for the sensuous Renault Laguna Estate, Peugeot 508 SW, Citroën C5 Tourer and the 156’s successor, the 159, that also plied the highways and medieval cores of Italy.

A few days earlier in London, I encountered a Ford Mondeo Estate – marketed as the Contour and later, the Fusion, in the US, and only in sedan form – which outshined a glinting Jaguar XJ-L sedan parked nearby on Oxford Street. And this was not even the new Mondeo, but a model available in Europe since 2007, wearing Ford’s now-dated “kinetic design” tropes.

Chris Mooney, editor of TopGear.com, understood my Mondeo moment. “Yeah, that’s a great-looking car”, he said with the enervating nonchalance of someone spoiled for choice. As we strolled amid the contents of the Top Gear garage, he nodded toward a shock-blue Audi RS4 Avant wagon. It was a 444-horsepower hunk of blueberry strudel that neither I, nor any American, would ever get to taste. “It’s a good one”, he offered.

The pain would be assuaged somewhat were it a simple case of pining after station wagons produced by brands like Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Citroën, which long since abandoned North America. But among the offenders is the Chevrolet Cruze wagon, which was unveiled last year at the Geneva Motor Show and encountered uniform praise in North American automotive press. When forced to answer for its strategy of keeping the car from US showrooms, Chevy indicated to The New York Times that a wagon would potentially pull shoppers away from the hot-selling, more lucrative Equinox crossover.

And Ford produces the crackling 252-horsepower Focus ST Estate for the UK, a machine that Top Gear magazine called “a car for all seasons, all moods, all roads, all journeys” en route to naming it Hot Hatch of the Year. Does a hot Focus family car threaten sales of the Ford Kuga crossover, marketed in the US as the Escape? No, precisely because many, not just some, Europeans prefer a wagon to a crossover, and express their preference with a purchase.

Ultimately the lament boils down to a catch-22. North Americans do not buy wagons because there are so few wagons to buy. But if only for a dedicated fringe, wagons remain practical, desirable, even sexy vehicles, whether empty or full. Sadly, the US market is nearly empty, while Europe is filled to bursting.

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