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Volvo V60 T-6 R-Spec: Station wagons were once defined by Detroit. Now the market is dominated by upscale foreign machines, such as Volvos. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Volvo V60 T-6 R-Spec: Station wagons were once defined by Detroit. Now the market is dominated by upscale foreign machines, such as Volvos. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

In praise of the humble station wagon Add to ...

I had a strange sense of déjà vu as I carved through a sweeping off-ramp in the new Volvo V60 R-Spec sport wagon. Why did this car feel so familiar? Was I recalling the station wagons my family owned when I was a teenager? Couldn’t be – our Ford Falcon and Opel Kadett wagons had been slow, unassuming boxes. This V60 was slick and fast.

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Then it hit me – the Volvo wagon reminded me of the Porsche 911 S that I took on a trip through Germany a few weeks ago. Seriously? Yes. The Volvo’s steering was accurate and perfectly weighted, and the V60 stuck relentlessly through the long curve, hunkering down like a sports car. Beautiful.

This got me thinking about the state of the station wagon. Once upon a time, the wagon was a proletarian transporter that covered North American roads in the same way that bison had once blanketed the plains. Then came a series of changes that gradually rendered the wagon all but extinct: an oil crisis, the minivan and the rise of the SUV.

Against all odds, the station wagon has survived, but in an unexpected, mutant form: elite-level cars like my Volvo R-Spec tester (which was priced at just less than $59,000 before taxes). The wagon world has been turned on its head.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the station wagon was defined by machines like the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and the Ford Country Squire, lumbering highway arks that were nothing more than Detroit sedans with grafted-on tail sections, an extra set of seats and fake wood panelling applied to their bounteous flanks.

Today, the wagon market is ruled by upscale foreign machines like the Audi A4 Allroad, the Mercedes E350 and the BMW 3 Series Touring. The newest arrival is the Volvo V60 I tested. It was the top-of-the-line T6 R-Spec model, and it epitomizes the modern station wagon.

There was a turbocharged, 325-horsepower inline-six motor under this Volvo’s hood, and a silken all-wheel-drive system with Haldex differentials (clever devices that seamlessly distribute power to each wheel). The V60 was fast, and it handled beautifully.

This was definitely not the station wagon I grew up with.

When I was a boy in the 1960s, the station wagon was a North American cultural fixture. Like the minivan that would later push it aside, the wagon made a lot of sense for a family. (I begged my father to trade in our Mercury Comet compact sedan for a Ford Country Squire wagon, and dreamed about trips where I wasn’t jammed into a steerage-class back seat with my brother, sister and a sheepdog.)

There were some cool wagons back then. One of my father’s friends turned the family Country Squire into a hot rod by tearing out the stock motor and bolting in a 440-cubic-inch V-8 from a crashed muscle car. I hoped my father would follow a similar path, but he opted for a used Falcon wagon, which had no sporting credentials whatsoever.

The sporting station wagon was a long-held dream, combining kid-hauling practicality with driving pleasure. If you watched the 1983 movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, you may recall Chevy Chase ordering a new “sport wagon” for his upcoming family trip to Walley World (although he was hoodwinked by the dealer into accepting the hideous Wagon Queen Family Truckster instead).

As I piloted the new T6 Volvo, I realized that my 1960s dream of a high-performance station wagon had come true – and that modern reality exceeded anything I could have envisioned in those days.

The R-Spec Volvo is compact and cleverly engineered, packed with state-of-the-art mechanicals, advanced safety features and digital systems that include blind spot warning systems and radar cruise control. It has all-wheel drive, disc brakes and independent suspension. And the Volvo’s three-litre turbo-six engine made more power than the 7.2-litre V-8 my father’s friend wedged into his Country Squire, while burning less than a third as much fuel.

This is the state of the station wagon art. But my drive in the T6 begged a further question – where do new wagons fit in a market ruled by the SUV?

The wagon’s decline in North America began in the 1970s, when the OPEC crisis drove up fuel prices. Sales plunged further when Chrysler introduced the minivan in 1984. The final nail in the wagon’s coffin was the SUV, a super-sized station wagon. The market had spoken. Detroit’s last full-sized station wagons, the Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster, were discontinued in 1996.

Despite their decline, wagons offer several advantages over SUVs and car-based crossovers – they are lighter, more fuel efficient, and have superior driving dynamics.

In Europe and Japan, where fuel prices are far higher, station wagons make up about 50 per cent of the car market.

If fuel prices continue to rise in North America, the wagon may rise again. Could the mastodon SUV end up in the tar pits of history, pushed aside by smaller, nimbler wagons? Stranger things have happened.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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