The old suburban standby is back in earnest—faster, sexier, safer and priced to sell. SUVs, get ready for some real competition
(MONEY Magazine) – Until recently, if you wanted a wagon with a trace of style or sport, your choices were limited to a few pricey models from the elite German makers Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Otherwise, you could opt for anything from a Volvo (safe but square, with the exception of the rugged XC70 Cross Country) to a Subaru (practical but as exciting as wheat germ). Well, the game has changed, and automakers are trying to lure SUV-crazed Americans back to their wagon roots. Wood-paneled Ward-and-June mobiles have morphed into sleek, do-it-all wagons. The best of them even match some SUVs for roominess while delivering the precise handling, fuel economy and reduced rollover risk of a sedan. And they look pretty hot too.
For this comparison test, I assembled three new wagons that are handsome and fun to drive yet still family-friendly: the Volvo V50, a safe Swede that showcases Volvo's new emphasis on pleasing design; the Mazda6 Sport Wagon, a tailgate version of MONEY's top-rated mid-size sedan; and the Dodge Magnum, a broad-shouldered Yank that backs up its aggressive looks with serious game. How well did this wagon train perform? Hop in.
VOLVO V50 T5
BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $27,945/$31,315 PROS: Scandinavian style, near perfect interior, spirited performance, legendary Volvo safety CONS: Tight rear seat, nutty top-end price BOTTOM LINE: The best Volvo wagon yet
Safe and sober are the s-words most people use to describe a Volvo. Sporty and stylish, not so much.
That's what makes the new Volvo V50 such a pleasant surprise. This one looks elegant on the outside and museum-modern inside, and adds an up-tempo performance we haven't seen from Sweden since Abba.
Some of that spirit comes as no surprise: The front-wheel-drive V50 shares its taut chassis with the sporty Mazda3 (both are owned by Ford). And for families who like German wagons but not their prices, the Volvo is a slick alternative at a $26,345 base price, despite its 168-horsepower, 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine. The V50 T5 model is more like it, with a turbocharged boost to 218 hp. It starts at $27,945, or $29,595 with the excellent Haldex all-wheel-drive system.
Out the door for $31,315, the front-drive T5 was the most luxurious wagon I drove. The cabin has an airy, Scandinavian-design feel, highlighted by a slender, free-floating central panel with outstanding controls. The minimalist array of switches looks tricky at first but proves efficient and easy to master. As in other Volvos, its anti-whiplash seats are among the best going, almost orthopedic in the way they snugly support your body.
The V50's real treats reveal themselves on the road, where the five-speed manual zips to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds. Unlike some small-engine turbo cars, it never runs out of steam, pulling with gusto to its top speed of 130 mph. There's a more responsive, less rubbery feel to the handling than in past models. Volvo made this one limber and fun to drive without compromising ride quality.
I nearly matched the Environmental Protection Agency's reported 22 mpg city/31 highway, and I averaged 25 mpg overall, making this the best of the group. And yes, it's loaded with safety features, including side and head curtain air bags and stability control (the latter is a $695 option that really should be standard).
Criticisms? Among these wagons, it has the smallest back seat and interior. To max out cargo space, you have to remove headrests, tug the seat cushions forward and fold the seatbacks. The price can also get out of hand. An all-wheel-drive T5 we tested topped $40,000. That's a lot for a compact wagon.
Overall, though, the V50 is a victory for Volvo: It rejects stodginess and injects sportiness while maintaining the company's safety-first philosophy.
DODGE MAGNUM RT AWD
BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $32,495/$35,715 PROS: Beefcake looks, extreme power, smooth operation, bigness for the buck CONS: Poor mileage, low roof steals cargo space, middling interior BOTTOM LINE: The XXL wagon, for better and worse
Nelly, the hip-hop superstar, has been flaunting a Magnum in an MTV video. That tells you all you need to know about the makeover of the once-dowdy family wagon—especially one as extroverted as this one. With the intimidating face of a linebacker, and a body to match, the Magnum I drove was the attention-getter of our trio. It's the biggest and, thanks to a 340-hp Hemi V-8, easily the fastest. It was also the most expensive, with optional all-wheel drive helping boost the tag to $35,715.
With the Magnum, Dodge was clearly looking to outsize and outrun European rivals at a lower price, and it scored. The rear seat is enormous, the power intoxicating, the handling smooth and confident at any speed. Its eight cylinders whip the Mazda's six and the Volvo's turbocharged five, propelling the car to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. Its body is by far the longest and widest—the roomy back seat can carry three adults in a pinch. The cargo area, about 75 inches long with the seats folded, out-stretches Mazda's 71 and Volvo's 65.
Yet as a practical wagon, the Dodge has issues. This beast has a thirst for fuel, despite the Hemi's economy-boosting ability to silently switch from eight- to four-cylinder mode. The interior, with its vinyl-esque leather, confusing scatter of tiny audio buttons and mid-grade feel, doesn't jibe with the price. And while the rear-sloping roof makes for an edgy profile, it creates blind spots and limits cargo space—the full-size Dodge has 25% less room behind the second row than the Mazda and the same amount as the Volvo, which is 20 inches shorter.
On the handling front, the Magnum benefits from technology borrowed from its corporate sibling Mercedes, including stability control and rear-suspension design. It's delightfully smooth, secure and planted. Still, you're aware that you're piloting a big car—terrific for its size but more cruise bomber than jet fighter. That's not surprising, since the vehicle weighs about 4,400 pounds in all-wheel-drive trim, nearly a half-ton more than the Mazda or the Volvo. That sent the gas needle plummeting to a test-worst 16 mpg overall. SXT models with a 250-hp V-6 manage closer to 22 mpg and start at $25,995, or $28,525 with AWD. They're the smart play for people who don't need Hemi power, price or consumption.
The Magnum is a wagon with an attitude problem, the family car that's one drag race away from anger management. If that sounds like a dream wagon, you'll gladly overlook its modest shortcomings.
MAZDA6 SPORT WAGON
BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $24,570/$27,145 PROS: Handsome throughout, sports-sedan moves, most useful cargo space, bargain price CONS: Some road noise, modest back seat, could use more horses BOTTOM LINE: Performance and practicality at a hard-to-beat price
The Mazda6 fulfills the mission of the modern sport wagon, whether you're taking a weekend lap on your favorite road or cruising for a parking space at the mall: It makes you forget you're driving a wagon, until you catch a rearview glimpse of all the room in the back.
Like its sedan and hatchback siblings, this Mazda is a bang-for-the-buck champ, a testament to winning design. The sleek styling is aggressive but grown-up. The cabin is comfortable, attractive and high quality. Safety gear includes standard side and curtain air bags.
Weak optional seat heaters and modest legroom in back are about the only interior knocks.
In my test, the Mazda, with its lively chassis and sophisticated sport suspension, was the most athletic and fun to drive, yet it was the least costly and most pragmatic choice overall. The standard 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine has 220 hp and is plenty smooth and refined, but you have to rev it—modest low-end torque means there's not much thrust until you hit 4,000 rpm. EPA fuel economy is 19 mpg city/26 highway; we observed 22 overall.
Despite its mid-size dimensions, the Mazda had the most usable cargo space behind the rear seats and the widest load floor. Pull the clever release levers in the cargo area and the 60/40 split rear seats fold flat—no hassle, no wasted steps or crawling around. The traditional wagon shape means great visibility and no big blind spots.
My near-loaded Sport edition started at $24,570 and checked out at $27,145, packed with goodies like leather, moonroof and premium audio. Even the $23,440 base model nets you the 220-hp V-6 (the Volvo and Dodge make you ante up big for bonus power and options). You can't get all-wheel drive, but the Mazda still seriously undercuts its rivals. The Volvo and Dodge are fine wagons, but top marks in sport, practicality and value make the Mazda the best of the bunch.