The station wagon, a form of automotive life once thought to be heading for extinction, is staging a comeback these days with versions being offered in the United States by a diverse selection of car makers: from budget models by Daewoo and Suzuki to luxury and performance offerings by the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
And though American shoppers still favor minivans and sport-utility vehicles when they fork over their down payments, the decisions may have more to do with perception than reality.
That, at least, is the message conveyed by the annual Target Car Report of the Automobile Club of Southern California, which for three years running has put a station wagon at the top of the heap when picking the passenger vehicle that best satisfies its members' desires.
The report, published yearly since 1968, evaluates how close new cars and trucks come to meeting the automotive ideals culled from survey responses, filed this year by nearly 25,000 club members.
The key features that shoppers consider include braking power, acceleration, ride quality, handling, visibility, crash-worthiness, cargo capacity and fuel economy.
That the top car since 1998 has been a station wagon shows that what we think we want when we enter our local dealer's showroom isn't necessarily what, deep inside, we know we need.
For the first seven months this year, according to new passenger vehicle registration data from Polk Co., Americans registered 175,753 new station wagons. That's an average of 24,751 a month, compared with a monthly average of 21,196 wagon registrations last year. If the present pace continues, wagon registrations will approach the 300,000 level this year, a 17 percent increase from 1999.
"Wagons really do seem to fill the bill," said Steve Mazor, the Auto Club's chief automotive engineer. "Minivans and SUVs have replaced the old full-size wagon -- the Buick Roadmasters and Ford Crown Victorias; they are not making a comeback. But there are a number of midsize and small wagons on the market now, and they quite often are sporty wagons so that when you drive them, you don't feel like you are in a station wagon."
Indeed, considering that many of the so-called crossover SUVs are really nothing more than tall station wagons with four-wheel drive -- wagons for the wagon-averse -- then the number of models available has increased dramatically in recent years. Can you say Subaru Forester? Lexus RX 300?
"They call them SUVs because they can market them better that way, but most of the crossovers are really car-based models," said Dan Sullivan, an analyst with J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif., near Los Angeles.
The hot-selling RX 300 from Toyota's luxury division "is really just a tall, four-wheel-drive Camry wagon, but it wouldn't sell very well if they called it that," Sullivan said. And though Lexus does market the RX 300 as an SUV, the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a station wagon for purposes of rating its fuel economy.
In the Auto Club Target Car Report for the 2000 model year, the top pick was the Mercedes-Benz E320 all-wheel-drive wagon. Granted, that's a $55,000 luxury vehicle, but a station wagon it remains.
Last year, the top finisher was the BMW 528 sport wagon, and in 1998 it was the Audi A4 Avant wagon.
Auto Club members who fill out the target car questionnaires aren't voting for specific makes and models but merely listing the characteristics and features they find most desirable in a passenger vehicle. Club statisticians match the members' desires to new cars and trucks available in the market, then run their own tests to rate the vehicles.
The Mercedes-Benz wagon was selected as best overall when price was not a consideration.
In the economy sweepstakes -- vehicles that provide the best overall value at the lowest price -- South Korean car maker Hyundai Motor Co. scored a big victory as Auto Club judges said the $12,100 Accent GL was tops. It outscored the $13,800 Toyota Echo two-door and the $14,200 Kia Sephia LS sedan, made and marketed by Hyundai-owned Kia Motors Corp.
The top midprice vehicles were the $23,000 Volkswagen GTI and the $25,300 Subaru Legacy GT Limited Edition, an all-wheel-drive sedan.
In the SUV category, the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG -- "the world's fastest SUV," according to the German brand's advertising and to numerous test drivers who have punched the throttle on the super-tuned, V-8-powered sport-ute -- took top honors when price (a hefty $65,500) was not a concern. The Kia Sportage 4x4, a mini-SUV priced at $19,500, was rated as the best value in the category, besting competitors that included the Toyota RAV4 and Jeep Wrangler.
The survey ranked the $31,130 Oldsmobile Silhouette Premier as the best overall minivan, with the Mazda MPV ES model, at $28,130, selected best value.
And despite the spate of customer satisfaction and quality awards garnered in other arenas by Toyota's new-for-2000 Tundra full-size pickup, the Auto Club raters said the $26,400 Dodge Dakota Quad Cab Sport Plus compact pickup best fulfilled the needs of Target Car survey respondents.
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