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Might Millennials Diss Boomer Parents and Revive Station Wagons?

Estates, shooting brakes and sportbacks.

by on Mar.29, 2013

Station wagons like Volvo's V60 may lead a revival of the segment.

Like a lot of folks in New York trade unions, Terry Keegan got his in through his family, but’s not always “like-father-like-son.” Baby Boomer Terry Sr. grew up in the back of a station wagon, often relegated to watching the world go by out the back window, his older siblings getting to ride up front. But when it was time to start his own family, Keegan opted first for a minivan and then a “cooler” SUV.

Now it’s junior’s time to express his individuality, the Millennial pausing for a moment as he dashed through the Jacob Javits convention center to check out the new Volvo V60 R-Design wagon.

“That’s not like the wagons my dad used to hate,” he laughs. “I don’t see the wood panels. This thing is really hot. I could see myself driving it.”

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Maybe it’s simply a classic case of generational revolt, but industry planners are watching closely to see whether the long-dismissed station wagon is finally – after several false starts – ready for a revival.

With high-end interiors and loads of gadgets, millennials are looking at wagons again.

You don’t have to convince folks visiting the annual New York Auto Show from Europe. “Wagons are big there,” says Andy Goss, the Brit now running Jaguar/Land Rover’s North American subsidiary. In fact, the maker has been gaining raves – and sales – with the recently launched “sporting brake” version of its mid-range XF model.

“Do you think we could sell a wagon here?” chimes in his boss, JLR’s global CEO Ralf Speth, echoing a question quite a few senior executives visiting the New York show have been heard to ask over the last few days.

The answer, it turns out, is something few agree upon.

What’s clear is that at their peak during the post-War Baby Boom, wagons were the body style of choice for American family buyers, accounting for millions of sales and becoming an icon of U.S. suburban life.

But as Boomers reached driving age, sales of wagons rapidly started to decline in favor of, well, just about anything else. And as Boomers started raising their own families the first minivans captured their imagination, becoming the ’80s symbol of suburbia.

While automotive trends may move at a glacial pace compared to the fashion or consumer electronics industries, change they must, and by the of end of the last Millennium, it was the minivan that started to fade away, supplanted, to a great degree, by the sport-utility vehicle.

The classic, truck-based SUV is itself already in decline, giving way to car-based crossovers that maintain a degree of their rugged appearance, but boast better mileage and on-road manners.

“And a lot of them are nothing more than wagons on steroids,” contends Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting.

Wandering through the NY Auto Show, Phillippi points to the Subaru Legacy Outback as a great example of how the Japanese maker scored big by adding a bit of cladding and raising the suspension a bit.

Subaru has migrated to crossover/wagons and ute-like crossovers in recent years, and it’s not alone. Manufacturers have given similar treatment to a number of vehicles that might otherwise fall into the wagon category. And the sales numbers suggest it’s not a bad approach. The two-box version of the Legacy is the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. that might be considered a wagon: American motorists snapped up nearly 118,000 last year.

“There’s always the possibility” the maker might add an undisguised wagon during the next year, says Tom Doll, president of Subaru of America, especially “if we could bring out a good, European-styled compact wagon.”

While their numbers are modest, at best, German manufacturers have had the most consistent success with what might be called “wagon-wagons” in recent years. That includes versions of the Volkswagen Jetta, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 3-Series and Audi A4. The latter maker saw a big jump in sales of its A3 Sportback – one of many alternate names Europeans seem to prefer. In fact, after originally planning to go with only a sedan version when the A3 is updated next year, Audi announced in New York that it will use the A3 Sportback body style to launch its first plug-in hybrid for the American market.

Perhaps no maker remains more closely identified with wagons than Volvo, which has long been for the boxy designs that built it a cult-level following in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In fact, the Swedish maker also pulled back from conventional wagons in the U.S. during the last decade, focusing instead on an Outback-like approach with models like the XC60 and XC90.

But the V60 R-Design gets it back into the market. “Volvo has the heritage, unlike any other company, when it comes to wagons,” which makes it possible to sell a vehicle like the V60 in a market that rarely still embraces wagons, said Doug Speck, the maker’s marketing vice president.

Significantly, the maker chose to focus on the sportiest version, the V60 R-Design during its NY Auto Show news conference, hoping that a 325-horsepower engine delivering 6.0-second 0 to 60 times will add a spark to the return of the Volvo wagon.

The success of European wagons encouraged Cadillac to try its hand with the well-reviewed CTS Wagon. Sales stagnated, last year totaling barely 1,800. So, plans for the next-generation CTS introduced in New York this week do not call for a replacement for the wagon.

Even so, General Motors officials admit they keep watching and waiting. They have plenty of wagons in Europe they could rapidly bring over, as could Ford and even Chrysler, through its Fiat partnership. Most Japanese makers have a mix of wagons in their own global lines, as well.

The Millennials are already beginning to shake things up; they’re demanding more technology – both in the passenger compartment and under the hood – and downsizing. And they seem to be looking for new product designs and segments that define their own identity.

For some, Europe’s sporty wagons are a comfortable fit. Whether that translates into a broader wagon revival remains to be seen.

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