With station wagon market share declining markedly since the peak years of the 1960s, it’s no wonder the number of station wagon offerings in North America has declined. Lately, crossovers have seen enormous and rapidly growing popularity in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. However, in those markets, particularly Europe, station wagon sales didn’t wilt quite as dramatically. Let’s look at some station wagons that missed the boat and didn’t arrive on North American shores.
Of the wagons featured, the Pontiac G8 wagon came the closest to arriving in North America. Only GM’s bankruptcy and a slumping US dollar stood in its way, and were it to have launched, it would have been accompanied by the Pontiac G8 Sport Truck.
Both would have been rebadged Holden Commodores, the Sport Wagon representing Pontiac’s first conventional station wagon since 1990, and the Sport Truck representing a return to the coupe utility style last seen in North America with the Chevrolet El Camino and GMC Caballero.
Where previous Commodore wagons straddled a longer wheelbase than their sedan counterparts, the VE Commodore Sportwagon rode the same 114.8-inch span as the sedan. With the Holden Captiva crossover proving to be a runaway hit, Holden evidently figured they could reposition the wagon not as a stodgy family car or company vehicle, but as a desirable yet practical wagon. To that end, Holden offered the wagon in every single trim the sedan came in, from base Omega up to the sporty SS-V and luxurious Calais-V; previous Commodore wagons had generally been limited to basic or family-oriented trims like Acclaim and Berlina.
The G8 Sport Wagon may have never reached US shores, but Holden delightfully launched the Holden Commodore SS-V Special Edition in 2009. Basically a way to use up parts, this limited-run model was available in sedan, wagon or ute, with each receiving the G8 front fascia (and the sedan receiving the G8’s more elegant decklid). No Pontiac arrowheads featured, but rest assured there are plenty out there with aftermarket logos fitted: a nice tribute to a brand that was really starting to turn a corner just as it was too late. Gee, that sounds familiar; didn’t that happen to Oldsmobile and Saturn, too?
The next two wagons hail from down under as well. Station wagon sales are really nothing to write home about here either, but they seem to have declined slower than they did in the US. Case in point: the XV20 Toyota Camry wagon. Manufactured only in Australia and Japan, the latter being a small market for it due to the car’s width, the new Camry wagon was exported to over two dozen overseas markets.
Although its styling was more conventional than its eccentric predecessor, it was less practical with a sloped tailgate and intrusive strut towers eating into load space. It handled better than its predecessor, though, with Toyota’s Australian engineers developing a local suspension tune that lessened body roll and improved the wagon’s road manners. Confusingly, Toyota persisted with dual Camry and Vienta lineups in Australia; the Vienta was originally the name for the V6 Camry, but as the V6 engine spread throughout the Camry lineup, the Vienta shifted upmarket before being axed in 2000. The Camry wagon was not replaced when the new XV30 Camry arrived for 2002, thus ending more than a decade of Camry wagon availability. Arguably, the Venza was its eventual successor, but it was only available in a few markets and it, too, has been axed.
Going head-to-head with the Camry/Vienta wagon in Australia were the Mitsubishi Magna and Verada wagons, known in sedan form in other markets as the Diamante. All second-generation Diamantes exported to North America were manufactured alongside the Magna and Verada in Mitsubishi Motors Australia’s Adelaide factory but, despite the availability of an Aussie-built wagon in the American Diamante lineup during the first generation, no wagon was available in the second generation. This didn’t stop Mitsubishi Australia from exporting the locally-engineered wagon to other markets, though, including Japan.
Although the Diamante was positioned as a premium rival to cars like the Lexus ES in North America, in Australia it was a humble family car in Magna form. Perhaps it was this positioning that made the Magna that much more impressive, as the competition was less fierce. The Magna’s two body styles–the capacious wagon, and the sleek, aerodynamic (0.28 Cd) sedan–went head-to-head with the front-wheel drive Camry and the rear-wheel drive Commodore and Falcon sedans and wagons.
The Magna/Verada story requires a lot more space to be told, but the Cliff’s Notes version is as follows: Mitsubishi introduced sporty trim levels, a Tiptronic auto, a gutsier 3.5 V6, even an all-wheel drive variant, but sales continued to slump, resale values were dragged down by excessive fleet sales and discounting, and even a 5-year warranty and an Iacocca-esque commercial campaign, with Mitsubishi’s CEO urging buyers to buy a better car if they could find one, couldn’t arrest the tide. Mitsubishi Australia ended up ditching the 20-year-old Magna nameplate (along with the Verada badge), with the new US Galant-derived replacement bearing the name 380. And it came as a sedan only.
Add “Legnum” to the list of bizarre Japanese market names like the Mazda Bongo and Toyota Estima Emina, but add the car itself to the list of desirable JDM offerings that never came to North America. The Mitsubishi Legnum was the station wagon variant of the crisply styled 1996-2003 Galant sedan, and it kept the Galant name for the European market. Although there were humble four-cylinder and V6 variants, the real treasure of the Legnum lineup was the VR-4.
photo courtesy of Jaime Martinez
Identical mechanically to the Galant VR-4, the range-topping all-wheel-drive Legnum featured a twin-turbo 2.5 V6 with 276hp and 271 ft-lbs. 0-60 was accomplished in under 6 seconds, leading Jeremy Clarkson to opine that the horsepower and torque figures were underreported due to Japan’s voluntary horsepower limit.
The VR-4 wasn’t just fast in a straight line; it could handle, too! Mitsubishi’s Active Yaw Control, also available on the Lancer Evolution, used a computer-controlled rear differential and two hydraulic clutches to split torque appropriately based on road conditions and driving style, and to allow greater cornering ability at high speeds. Suffice it to say, the Legnum VR-4 was one hot wagon. There were only two downsides: Firstly, why was this amazing car limited to the Japanese market? Secondly, what were they thinking with that name?
For such a small country, Japan sure has a lot of unique models which it often cruelly keeps to itself. If the puzzlingly-named Legnum doesn’t catch your fancy, then perhaps the Stagea – no, I’m not sure how to pronounce it either – is more your style. The Stagea was popularly known as a Skyline wagon, and was sold from 1996-2007. The first-generation Stagea was actually more closely related to the Nissan Laurel, but featured engines and an optional all-wheel-drive system shared with the R33 Skyline. A popular modification is for people to put the R33 Skyline front on a Stagea body; frankly, anything would improve the first Stagea’s styling, as its lines are conservative to the point of being dull and it looks extremely dated alongside the contemporary Skyline.
A new Stagea arrived in 2001, sitting atop the new FM platform shared with the Infiniti G35 (badged in Japan as the Nissan Skyline); the Stagea featured the same interior as the G35. The rorty inline sixes were gone, but in their place was a range of new V6 engines: naturally-aspirated 2.5 and 3.0 units, as well as a turbocharged 280 hp 2.5 and the ubiquitous and powerful 3.5 VQ35 unit. All-wheel-drive was an option, and Nissan added subtle off-road styling cues to the striking wagon body when equipped in AR-X trim.
With its upmarket pretensions, the Stagea could have enjoyed a comfortable niche role in the Infinti lineup, offering the same performance and interior appointments as its sedan and coupe counterparts. Alas, the Stagea stayed across the Pacific, roaming the streets with other exotic Japanese metal like the Toyota Mark X and Caldina.
In this week’s Taurus wagon article, Old Pete questioned why the new Mondeo wagon wasn’t available in the North American market. The answer, as Aaron Severson explained, is simple: There just aren’t enough projected sales to warrant the cost of compliance, including emissions certification and crash testing. Does it make sense for the US to have such different standards compared to Europe and other markets? It’s an interesting question, as Australia is potentially changing their Australian Design Rules compliance standards to align them more with those of other markets. If there is greater harmony among Western nations, it won’t turn us into some Wild West car marketplace full of unsafe and unsuitable vehicles, after all. If anything, everyone will be a winner: Consumers will have more choice, and automakers won’t have to spend as much to introduce new models to market. Then, if marketing costs don’t prove to be insurmountably high, we can enjoy once more the availability of a mid-size Ford wagon. And the new Mondeo wagon is quite a looker!
Whether the harmonization of standards will actually come is unknown. Some automakers stubbornly insist on selling wagons in the US market, seeing a mostly untapped niche market ripe for the picking. There have been rumors that GM will re-enter the North American station wagon market. Arguably the most plausible contender is the Opel Insignia, already available here in sedan form as the Buick Regal. The current Regal was initially manufactured in Germany and exported here before switching to Canadian production, so there is precedent for an imported model. The Regal’s more upscale positioning, too, lends itself better to the introduction of a wagon variant. The Opel Insignia Sports Tourer is not only stylish, but it is also decently practical; it rides a 193.3 inch wheelbase, three inches longer than the sedan and hatch.
Of course, if GM wants to get enthusiasts salivating, it could bring over the Insignia OPC Sports Tourer. Although the existing Regal GS sedan resembles the Insignia OPC, right down to the shiny fangs, the OPC packs a 321hp, 321 ft-lb turbocharged 2.8 V6, with power delivered to all four wheels and standard FlexRide adaptive suspension as well as HiPerStrut torque steer-reducing technology. Despite the presence of sophisticated technology, the Insignia OPC still suffers from some understeer and turbo lag, not to mention a portly 4000lb curb weight, but it is still regarded by critics as being a joy to drive and with a surprisingly compliant ride.
If I were a betting man, though, I would put money on a Buick-badged version of the Insignia Country Tourer. Following the same recipe first cooked up in 1996 by Subaru with its Outback wagon, the Insignia Country Tourer is simply an Insignia wagon with some light cladding and slightly higher ground clearance. The Insignia is due to be replaced in the near future, so perhaps a next-generation Country Tourer will grace the North American market with its presence. I reckon it would make an excellent addition to the Buick lineup.
Although the chances are slim, you also shouldn’t rule out the return of a Mazda6 wagon. Mazda may be one of the smaller Japanese players, but it is often the biggest risk-taker: witness their steadfast dedication to rotary engines, the North American availability of the Mazda5, as well as the upcoming diesel Mazda6. The current Mazda6, no longer manufactured in the US, is available overseas as a wagon. As it is not aimed at the US market, the wagon actually rides a wheelbase three inches shorter than the sedan. This is quite a change in strategy from the previous Mazda6, which had a larger, North American-exclusive V6 sedan variant but smaller sedan, hatch and wagon body styles for other markets. It seems to indicate Mazda is trying to cut down on costs, so perhaps Mazda won’t bother tooling up the wagon for sale here. A shame, as it is quite a shapely load-lugger.
Wagons may be almost extinct in North America, but this oft-maligned body style still refuses to die despite being relentlessly attacked by minivans, MPVs, SUVs and crossovers for almost 30 years. There’s something you can do, though. If there is a station wagon available for sale, buy it. Help save the endangered station wagon species! It may cost more than a penny a day, but ultimately it is consumer preferences that have kept station wagons, manual transmissions and diesel engines around for all this time. You don’t want them to go? Buy them.