Vintage Review: Popular Science Tests 1978 Chevrolet Malibu, Mercury Zephyr, and Plymouth Volare Station Wagons – Size Confusion

Recently Paul posted an article where Road and Track road tested a 1976 Plymouth Volare wagon. This lead to several commenters comparing the Volare to the Ford Fairmont and the downsized Chevrolet Malibus.  There were some that rebutted that the prices among these cars were not equal, and others who said they weren’t comparable because they were from different size classes.  All that said, Popular Science agreed with some of the commenters and claimed that these cars were relatively equal despite the size labels that the manufacturers put on each.

I tend to agree that these cars were competitors. There were drastic changes occurring in the auto industry at this time and this is likely what lead to confusion on the sizing on these cars.  The fact is despite the Fairmont and the Volare being listed as “compacts” and the Malibu being called an intermediate by Chevrolet, each of these cars were classed as “mid-size” by the EPA in terms of passenger and cargo volume.  It takes a quick look at the spec sheets to see how close the dimensions on these cars actually were.  The Malibu and Fairmont are somewhat smaller than the “compact” Volare, but all three are relatively similar in size and interior room.

Popular Science was amazed at how these new midsized wagons were just as roomy on the inside as the previous generation but was so much smaller on the outside. The handling and roadability of these modern wagons had drastically improved with more modern chassis and lighter weights.  Of course this also meant a significant improvement in fuel mileage while performance could be maintained with smaller engines.   Below is a comparison of 1975 “Intermediate” wagons compared to these 1978 wagons in terms of dimensions.


1975 Chevelle 1975 Torino 1975 Fury 1978 Malibu 1978 Zephyr 1978 Volare
F leg room 42.1 42.5 41.9 42.8 41.8 42.5
R leg room 36.8 37.3 36.3 35.9 35.4 36.6
R knee room 0 4 0.8 0.5 1.6 1.2
F head room 38.8 38.4 39.7 38.5 39.2 39.2
R head room 39.4 38.4 39.9 38.5 39.2 38.7
F hip room 54.7 59.4 59.2 52.2 56.2 57.2
R hip room 55.1 59.3 59.2 55.6 48.7 57
Cargo Volume 72.4 79.5 73.1


1975 Chevelle 1975 Torino 1975 Fury 1978 Malibu 1978 Zephyr 1978 Volare
Length 215.2 222.6 224.1 193.4 193.8 201.2
Wheelbase 116 118 117 108.1 105.5 112.7
Width 76.6 79 79.2 71.2 70.2 73.3
Height 55.6 54.8 56.5 54.5 54.7 55.7
Weight 4696 5009 4456 3260 2898 3581

All Data obtained from Popular Science

The interior dimensions are pretty close to the behemoth wagons that preceded these cars.   In comparing the exterior dimensions it’s astonishing how much longer, wider and heavier the mid-70s wagons were compared to the new generation.  The Ford had the most significant exterior size difference, going from largest to smallest in the class. All that said, everything comes at a cost.  The new generation wagons were a marvel of packaging compared to the previous cars, but they do fall short when in a few areas.  Unfortunately the cargo volumes for the mid-1970’s wagons weren’t listed, but I know that they are all are over 80 cubic feet and were larger than the small wagons that replaced them.  These older wagons also had a wider cargo area, allowing them to carry 4 x 8 sheets in some cases (Torino and Fury).

The hip room was also reduced on the new smaller wagons. Chevrolet was the closest at achieving the dimensions of the old Malibu, albeit, the older Malibu was significantly narrower than the Torino and Fury competition.  And while you might say, who cares about hip room!?  I can attest as someone who grew up with station wagons and a family of six, we cared!  Driving all day next to your annoying sibling on a family trip,  it sure is nice to have those extra inches.   From personal experience, I can tell you a Fairmont didn’t leave much space for three in the back seat.  The last point of compromise for the newer wagons was the lack of a third seat option, previously offered on all of the older wagons.  These compromises were part of the reason why my family upgraded from a Fairmont wagon to a larger GM B-body station wagon.

All three manufacturers switch the tailgates used from one generation to the next as well. The Mercury and Plymouth went from the old 3-way tailgate to the now almost ubiquitous lift gate hatch.  While Chevrolet , for some strange reason, reverted back from a lift gate to a two piece tailgate, circa the 1950’s.  This was likely a big drawback for station wagon customers, and in my opinion a poor choice by General  Motors.

Another point of interest is just how astonishingly close the Mercury and Chevrolet wagons are in overall dimensions. It’s almost as if each car was using the other as the baseline.  The one point where the Mercury wagon differs significantly is the larger cargo area.  This is no doubt from Ford’s more efficient packaging from modern unitized construction.  Ford even boasted that the Fox wagons had 85% of the capacity of the new downsize Chevy B-Body wagons.  Nevertheless, the Malibu does have significantly more rear seat hip room compared to the Merc.   While many trash the 1978 A-bodies for the fixed rear windows, this larger dimension is the end result.

The wagons in this particular test were all equipped with small displacement V8 engines.   While during this time the 6 cylinder engines were becoming more popular, V8 engines were still relatively popular in the late 1970’s.  Chevrolet actually sold far more V8 equipped Malibus than it did six cylinder in 1978.  Many customers who stepped up to larger heavier wagons often felt the need to also upgrade the more powerful V8. All three engines produced about the same power, and the lightest Fairmont had the best performance, while the heaviest Volare was the slowest.   All three performed very comparably to the larger heavier 1975 wagons that PS tested, with significantly improved mileage.


When it came to base prices, the Zephyr and the Volare were pretty spot on, while the Malibu was about $500 more expensive. All wagons were well optioned for the times, and it increased the prices significantly.  In the end the Malibu was about $1000 more than the Zephyr wagon.  The Volare was a couple hundred dollars more than the Mercury.  That said, the Malibu was the most optioned up of the three cars.  And of course this doesn’t take into account the discounts at the dealership, in all likelihood the biggest ones probably were at the Mopar store.


These are the production numbers for the “midsized” wagons over their entire production run.  Figures include all models/variations, ie Dodge Diplomat and Dodge Aspen, or Ford Fairmont, Granada and LTD

Here is the production of midsize wagons by platform for each manufacturer.  The numbers are the total for all makes using the platform.

Here is the total output for each of the wagons by platform, over all production years.

Based on the commentary in the Popular Sciences road test, it appears that they favoured the Malibu and Zephyr over the Volare wagon. They note that despite the only two year difference in release time, the Ford and GM products had moved a notch above that of the Mopar.  The Zephyr is definitely the most advanced design of the three, and the Fox wagon remained on the market until 1986 compared to 1983 for Chevrolet, 1981 for Mopar.  However, the light weight and the more spartan accommodations were definitely noticeable compared to the competition.  The Volare was definitely the most traditional when it came to driving dynamics and still had a bit of that 70’s era brougham vibe.  Perhaps the Malibu was the best compromise of old school plushness with new school nimble handling.  Undoubtedly, as Popular Science noted, the body on frame construction allowed it to have the best isolation and lowest road noise of the bunch.

After looking at these wagons more in-depth, I think it’s pretty clear that they were competitors despite the manufactures size confusion. Based solely on this test and specs on paper, the Zephyr wagon appears to be the best bargain of the bunch, with a great price, space efficiency, performance and handling.  That said, looking back with 40 years of hindsight, I’d choose the Malibu over the other two wagons.  We owned a ’79 Fairmont wagon with a 302, and while I really liked the car, it was hands down the worst car anyone in our immediate family owned.  Having driven all of these platforms, the Malibu is my favourite to drive and they have a proven suspension and drivetrain.  In the late 70’s it was hard to beat a Chevy V8 with a good ol’ mechanical Rochester carb for simplicity and reliability. So now it’s your turn, what is your 1978 midsize wagon of choice?