American drivers like station wagons as much as they enjoy shifting their own gears: not at all.
The stick and the wagon are two endangered species in the United States and many motorists argue they belong in a bygone era. Some cars have managed to buck market trends; the Mazda MX-5 Miata is often ordered with a manual transmission and the Subaru Outback has resolutely resisted the onslaught of SUVs – including some it shares showroom space with – over the past two decades.
The Outback wasn’t the first off-road-friendly station wagon but it’s the most popular member of this niche segment and the one that has spawned the most imitators. Join us for a look at how it all started:
Willys Jeep Station Wagon (1946)
In the aftermath of WWII, selling a Jeep to civilian motorists was easier said than done. The MB-derived CJ-2A was a bare-bones off-roader much closer to a tractor than to a family-hauler so it appealed to a small subset of the American population. Instead of throwing in the towel, Willys channeled its four-wheel drive expertise into a bigger, closed-roof vehicle called simply Station Wagon.
Built until 1965, the Station Wagon laid the groundwork for the SUV as we know it in 2019 but it was also one of the very first rugged, go-anywhere family cars sold in significant numbers.
Subaru Leone (first-generation, 1972)
When Subaru introduced the Leone in 1971, few predicted it would spawn such a long descendance. It was presented as a front-wheel drive coupe, so nothing you'd want to take off the asphalt, and the four-wheel drive station wagon variant didn’t join the line-up until late 1972. It took Subaru another two years to introduce it on the American market.
Subaru executives had correctly identified an empty niche in the United States. The firm’s wagon blended the drivability of a passenger car with the off-road prowess of a truck. Sponsoring the American ski team helped spread the word about this new type of car and sales consequently doubled in record time. Subaru sold 41,587 cars in the United States in 1975 and 80,826 in 1977.
AMC Eagle (1979)
Subaru’s success in the United States caught the attention of American Motors Corporation (AMC). It was teetering on the brink of collapse after losing market share during most of the 1970s so it needed something new to lure customers into showrooms. It decided to give motorists a bigger, more powerful alternative to Subaru’s unique breed of off-road wagons by fitting the Concord with a four-wheel drive system developed in England by FF Developments.
When it made its debut in 1979, the Eagle line-up included two- and four-door sedans plus a station wagon. All three body styles offered a generous amount of ground clearance and a straight-six engine; AMC stopped offering a V8 during the 1980 model year. The company hoped to sell 50,000 examples annually but sales never went above the 40,000-unit mark during the car’s production run.
In hindsight, the Eagle was well ahead of its time. In the 1980s, American motorists who wanted a station wagon with Jeep-like off-road capacity purchased an SUV. The original Jeep Cherokee – which was designed under AMC’s guidance – was, ironically, one of the models that stole the Eagle’s thunder.
Toyota Tercel SR5 (1982)
By the early 1980s, Subaru’s unique breed of four-wheel drive station wagons had gained a steady and enviable foothold in the United States. The AMC Eagle was marketed as a possible alternative but it was bigger and not as fuel efficient as its Japanese rival. Toyota took the fight directly to Subaru when it unveiled the Tercel SR5 in 1982.
The Tercel SR5 was front-wheel drive in normal driving conditions but the driver could yank on a lever to engage four-wheel drive in challenging weather. Interestingly, it came with a six-speed manual transmission. It had five standard gears and an extra-low sixth gear labeled EL used to crawl through loose or rough terrain.
Honda Civic 4WD Wagon (1984)
Honda wasn’t far behind Toyota in its quest to dethrone Subaru. It added four-wheel drive to the Civic station wagon for the 1985 model year. Like the Tercel, the Civic was available with a six-speed manual transmission that included an extra low gear. And, also like in the Tercel, engaging all-wheel drive required pulling on a lever located between the seats.
The Civic 4WD gained a new system called RealTime 4WD for the 1987 model year that automatically sent power to the rear axle when the front wheels began to slip. Honda also updated its design (pictured) and added stickers on the rear doors to brag about its technology.
Subaru Outback (1994)
Subaru’s annual American sales stagnated around the 100,000-unit mark during the early 1990s. Its cars were too far from what was considered mainstream to compete against bigger Japanese brands like Honda and Toyota. Motorists who wanted four-wheel drive turned towards SUVs such as the original Ford Explorer and the Jeep Cherokee. There was a limit to how far buyer loyalty could take the brand and it couldn’t afford to develop an SUV from scratch. Resorting to badge-engineering was ruled out, too.
Subaru of America created the original Outback by taking a Legacy wagon and making it look and feel a little bit more rugged. It arrived on the American market for the 1995 model year as little more than a trim level. When product planners realized they hadn’t gone far enough, they added rally-like fog lights to the front bumper (pictured), beefier tires and a taller suspension. The Outback as we know it in 2019 was born.
The updated Legacy Outback – which had morphed into a standalone model – went on sale for the 1996 model year with a base price of $21,995 (about $35,600 in 2019 money). In comparison, the entry-level Legacy wagon cost $17,195 (about $27,800 in 2019). The Outback (and, later, the Forester) helped Subaru's American sales jump from 100,372 in 1995 to 172,216 in 2000.
Subaru Forester (first-generation, 1997)
While the Subaru Legacy became an off-roader almost as an afterthought, the Forester was designed specifically to compete in the off-road wagon segment. Released in 1997 as a 1998 model, it picked up where the Loyale left off in 1994 by giving buyers a smaller, more affordable alternative to the Outback. SUV-like ground clearance and protective plastic body cladding came standard on every trim level.
The Forester sold well right off the bat but, in the 2000s, Subaru came to two conclusions. First, it didn’t have space in its line-up for two off-road wagons. Second, it didn’t have an entry into the booming crossover segment. It addressed both points by making the third-generation Forester released in 2008 more SUV-like.
Volvo V70 Cross Country (1997)
With the AMC Eagle out of the picture since 1987, the Subaru Legacy Outback enjoyed a monopoly on the four-wheel drive station wagon segment in America. Its only true competition came from Subaru’s other models. Volvo followed the path blazed by its Japanese rivals to create the original V70 Cross Country that made its debut for the 1998 model year.
Starting with a V70, stylists penned a brawnier design characterized by Cross Country-specific bumpers on both ends and a restyled grille. The interior received leather upholstery and all-weather floor mats. In America, the only engine available was a turbocharged, 2.4-liter five-cylinder that sent 190 hp to the four wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission.
Selecting the Cross Country package bumped the V70’s price to $37,385 in 1998 (about $58,300 in 2019 money); it cost approximately $3000 (almost $4,700 in 2019) more than the standard all-wheel drive V70.
Audi Allroad Quattro (1999)
Volvo’s V70 Cross Country sold better than many expected so, in 1999, the Audi A6 Avant got in line to receive the same treatment. The German firm wasn’t content with merely adding a few inches of ground clearance and skid plates to its entry into the segment, however. It fitted the Allroad Quattro with an adjustable air suspension that let the driver increase the ride height as-needed to clear obstacles. Four different levels were available. The result was a model that was much more capable off-road than its homely wagon body suggested.
In America, the Allroad’s engine options included a twin-turbocharged 2.7-liter V6 shared with the S4 and a 300hp 4.2-liter V8. European buyers could order it with a V6 turbodiesel.
Saab 9-3X (2009)
Volvo's sales wins at home and abroad convinced Saab to jump into the rugged station wagon segment. Introduced at the 2009 Geneva auto show, the 9-3X was a standard 9-3 wagon that gained an SUV-like look with the seemingly obligatory black plastic cladding and gray, brushed aluminum-like inserts. The X also sat a little bit taller than the regular 9-3 but some variants of it were undeniably more show than go.
Saab offered a pair of turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. The gasoline-powered unit spun the 9-3’s four wheels through an all-wheel drive system developed jointly with Haldex but the power made by the diesel-burning alternative only reached the front wheels. Saab sold a tiny handful of 9-3Xs in the United States, where the model was exclusively available with the gasoline engine.
Volkswagen Passat Alltrack (2011)
Volkswagen developed the Passat Alltrack to fill the narrow gap that separated the Tiguan from the standard Passat Variant. Presented at the 2011 Tokyo auto show, the Alltrack offered more ground clearance, a model-specific design inside and out and standard 4Motion all-wheel drive. In other words, it was exactly what you'd expect for a car positioned in this growing segment of the market.
The Passat Alltrack unexpectedly appeared at the 2012 New York auto show. Volkswagen seriously considered locking horns with Subaru in the Outback’s segment but it changed its mind. The standard Passat wagon wasn't sold in the United States so the company would have needed to federalize it, which was an expensive endeavor for a low-volume model reaching the end of its life cycle. And, odds are insiders already knew the next-generation of the North American Passat would be a standalone model not offered as a wagon so the Alltrack would have no direct successor. The prospect of spending a small fortune to sell a handful of cars without building a legacy wasn't an enticing one and the Passat Alltrack never got the chance to turn a wheel on American asphalt. Volkswagen hadn't said its last word, though. PICTURE: production model
Opel Insignia Country Tourer (2013)
Opel joined the rugged wagon segment when it unveiled the Insignia Country Tourer at the 2013 Frankfurt auto show. Like all of its rivals, it sat a little bit higher than the model it was based on, it wore plastic cladding and it came with all-wheel drive. Its interior was more upmarket, too, thanks to leather upholstery and additional creature comforts.
The original Insignia sedan was sold in the United States as the Buick Regal. Sightings of Country Tourer test mules zig-zagging through Detroit wearing manufacturer plates sparked rumors that the model would cross the pond but they never materialized. Buick wasn’t testing the car just for fun, however.
Volkswagen Golf Alltrack (2015)
In 2013, after the Passat Alltrack made a surprise appearance in New York, credible rumors indicated Volkswagen had started developing a wagon on stilts to lure buyers out of Subaru showrooms. 117,000 motorists bought an Outback in 2012 so Volkswagen’s interest in the segment was easy to understand.
Instead of starting with a Passat, the firm took a Golf SportWagen and added 17in alloy wheels, permanent 4Motion all-wheel drive and the usual assortment of plastic cladding to create the Golf AllTrack. The model made its American debut at the 2015 New York auto show.
Audi A4 Allroad (2016)
In the United States, the original Allroad Quattro couldn’t achieve the volume Audi wanted. The firm decided to stop offering the model and it instead turned its attention to developing a true SUV with an eye on the American market. In Europe, where SUVs took longer to catch on, the Allroad nameplate appeared on the C6- and C7-generation A6s as well as on the B8- and the B9-generation A4s.
Audi of America unexpectedly gave the segment a second chance when it unveiled the American-spec A4 Allroad at the 2016 edition of the Detroit auto show. Sales began during the 2017 model year and, as of 2019, it remains the only Audi wagon sold in the United States.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class All-Terrain (2016)
Mercedes-Benz introduced the E-Class All-Terrain in 2016 after spending years watching rival Audi make headlines with its Allroad-branded wagons. The idea of a Mercedes wagon with all-wheel drive wasn’t new, its 4Matic technology was available on the S124 during the 1980s, but the All-Terrain gained the ground clearance needed to venture off the pavement plus a driver-adjustable suspension.
Visually, Mercedes borrowed a page from the Audi playbook. The All-Terrain stands apart from the regular E-Class with black plastic trim over the rocker panels and the wheel arches, brushed aluminum-like accents plus roof rails. Though insiders sometimes suggested otherwise, the German firm chose not to sell the E-Class All-Terrain in the United States and it hasn’t applied the treatment to the smaller C-Class – at least not yet.
Buick Regal TourX (2017)
In 2017, Buick’s quest to rejuvenate its image led it to the station wagon segment for the first time since Roadmaster production ended in 1996. But while the Roadmaster was an old-fashioned, body-on-frame road mammoth bigger than a college dorm room, the Regal TourX arrived with an off-road-friendly design and proportions politely described as European. If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s an Americanized version of the Insignia sold by Opel and Vauxhall in Europe.
Buick priced the 2019 TourX at $29,070, a figure that places it between the Subaru Outback ($26,345) and more luxurious wagons like the Audi A4 Allroad ($45,700).
Volvo V60 Cross Country (2018)
Volvo turned the station wagon-SUV hybrid into an artform. It has released over half a dozen Cross Country-badged cars including the V40 hatchback and the S60 sedan. The 1997 V70’s youngest descendant is the second-generation V60 Cross Country introduced in 2018.
It’s more design-led than its boxy predecessor but it hasn’t strayed far from the original Cross Country’s tried-and-true three-part formula. Volvo added ground clearance, model-specific styling cues, and all-wheel drive. It starts at $41,700.
Subaru Outback (sixth-generation, 2019)
Once a niche model that appealed only to quirky motorists, the Outback has transitioned into a mainstream car that stands out as one of Subaru’s best-selling models in the United States. It outlived the Legacy wagon and, unlike the Forester, it has remained loyal to its station wagon roots.
The Japanese firm has a lot riding on the Outback’s success so it played it safe when it developed the sixth-generation model. Its overall design hasn’t changed much and it continues to offer all-wheel drive plus a generous amount of ground clearance (8.7in for the 2020 model). However, it’s more user-friendly than before thanks to additional creature comforts like an 11.6in touchscreen for the StarLink infotainment system, a full suite of electronic driving aids bundled under the name EyeSight and an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot.
Subaru predictably deep-sixed the flat-six engine. The latest Outback is only available with flat-four engines (one naturally-aspirated and one turbocharged) and, as a sign of the times, it’s no longer offered with a stick. It will reach American showrooms in the fall of 2019.
Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo (2021 and beyond)
The Mission E Cross Turismo concept introduced at the 2018 Geneva auto show signaled Porsche’s intent to fill the gray area that separates passenger cars like the Panamera Sport Turismo from SUVs like the Cayenne. Although it was presented as a simple design study, Porsche quickly confirmed the model will reach production in late 2020.
Likely called Taycan Cross Turismo, it will arrive as an electric wagon built on the same foundations as the standard Taycan that will break cover by the end of 2019. We expect 600 hp, all-wheel drive and about 250 miles of driving range in real-world conditions.
As of 2019, a vast majority of car companies have released at least one station wagon on stilts. There are some notable exceptions, however. BMW and Jaguar have both steered clear of the segment because it doesn't fit their image and they would rather focus on making SUVs. Most American automakers have, too, with the notable exception of the aforementioned Regal TourX. PICTURE: BMW 3 Series Touring