Not many Canadians remember the Austin Marina, and those who do probably wish they didn't. The cheap, crude car didn't even get much respect in its British home market, never mind in the wholly different Canadian road-scape.
Perhaps we'd remember it more fondly if the wagon version had been sold here. Aside from its obvious utility, the wagon was rated as "the best-handling Marina" and "by far the best car in the range" by Motor magazine in 1973. The review speculated the wagon's more rearward weight distribution helped elevate the handling from awful to, well, at least acceptable.
Our auto market has evolved enormously since the era of the Marina. But despite the advent of the minivan and the subsequent mainstreaming of SUVs as family hold-alls, a handful of station wagons remains available. Some people need utility but still want to drive a car. And, as Motor discovered, a station wagon can be at least as good a car as the sedan it's based on.
Perhaps the most extreme example of that is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon. Nobody is going to pay $70,000-plus for a luxury wagon that isn't the equal in performance and comfort of its sedan sibling. Never mind the regular E400 Wagon – even the stupendous 577-hp E63 AMG is available wagon-shaped. The incongruity of a 300-km/h wagon obviously has appeal: Mercedes-Benz Canada says the wagon take rate for the E63 is much higher than for the E400.
Curiously, the pricey Benz is now the only wagon sold in Canada that is unashamedly a wagon, both in name and appearance. Among six other models that fit our definition of wagons, three have adopted quasi-SUV personas à la Subaru Outback, with jacked-up suspensions and "rugged" styling cues; two others call themselves Sportwagons, and one is labelled Touring. And VW's Sportwagon is being sold in both gasoline and diesel versions, with automatic and manual transmissions.
What they have in common: all are derivatives of a sedan; are at least the same length as their sedan siblings; and have no significant rear lift-over to impede access through the tailgate. The latter attributes are what make them wagons, as distinct from five-door hatchbacks.
The aforementioned Touring is the name BMW gives the wagon version of the 3 Series. BMW Canada spokesman Rob Dexter says the take rate for wagons in Canada and the United States is far lower than in Europe, but BMW wouldn't offer the Touring here if there wasn't a business case for it.
"It really is a unique customer, he says. "They tend to be creatives and professionals who don't want to be affiliated with an SUV. They like the idea of the 3 Series and also want something unique within the model range. The Touring has the special look, and it has the cargo space."
The SUV-wannabe trend in wagons is, to some extent, a Canadian thing: other markets have traditional wagons – for example, the Audi A4 Avant and the Volvo V70 – as well as their respective all-road and the XC70 "soft-roader" spin-offs. But that level of choice doesn't make business sense for cars that sell in such small numbers here, and if it has to be just one, our driving conditions make a good case for the soft-roader versions.
Still, tech consultant Sheila Brasca prefers a pure wagon. She drives a 2010 BMW 535i Touring bought used after BMW discontinued the wagon version of the 5 Series in Canada. With two almost-teen sons and two large dogs, she needs utility, "but I prefer a wagon because I am looking for a sporty driving experience and, if possible, better fuel economy than I can get in a SUV."
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