- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

If the domestics were the barometer, station wagons could be pronounced dead on arrival. Chrysler has no station wagons in its lineup, while Saturn is the only General Motors Division with a wagon. Ford continues to keep the faith to a certain degree with its Taurus/Mercury Sable wagons, as well as one wearing the Focus nameplate; but that’s a far cry from the domestic wagon selection a quarter of a century ago.

For all intents and purposes, the minivan has usurped the station wagon’s role in the American family — or has it? Although the domestic brands have all but abandoned the genre, the Europeans appear oblivious to the minivan’s dominance in this country. The Swedes (Volvo and Saab) and the Germans (Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen), all successfully market station wagons here and abroad. Asian imports also weigh in with a number of wagons. So, the station wagon isn’t really dead; it just isn’t as profitable to build and market as, say, a full-size pickup truck. That’s the grim reality. Every year, more and more car-based domestic models are being discontinued to make additional capacity for manufacturing the highly profitable pickups and sport utility vehicles. However, that’s another story for another time.

Owners wishing to escape bulky, fuel-hungry SUVs or the “soccer mom” stigma of minivans still do have some station wagon choices, and among the more interesting are those from Germany.

The three described here all offer six-cylinder engines, automatic transmissions and seating for five. All also post similar Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates of roughly 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. Missing is either offering from Audi. Audi has a wagon version of its A4 and A6.

The A4 is similar in many respects to the Volkswagen Passat appearing here, and retails for about two grand more.

Mercedes-Benz has put a new face on its E-Class entries for 2003. This is the bread-and-butter series for Benz, so it hasn’t done anything too drastic to its most popular seller.

As with the sedan, the E-Class wagon enjoys a freshened exterior and a more comfortable interior. If one term characterizes the updated cabin, it’s flexibility.

New standard technology includes a brake-by-wire system for quicker stops, A-pillar-mounted head air bags and rain-sensing wipers. The E320 wagon is powered by a 3.2-liter V-6 that delivers 221 horsepower. It requires premium fuel. The E320 is the most costly of our three German wagons. Prices hadn’t been announced as of this writing, but expect its price to be close to that of the 2002, or roughly $50,000.

The 5-Series wagon from BMW is basically unchanged this year. A redesigned 2004 version will be in showrooms by midsummer, so it has chosen to leave well enough alone.

What BMW brings to the station wagon party is its sporty drivability. BMWs are performance vehicles through and through, and its wagons are no exception.

The 525i is able to reach 60 mph from a standstill in under nine seconds thanks to the 184 horsepower, in-line six-cylinder engine under its hood. Its sure-footed handling makes taking on the twisties a real joy. However, it’s just as well suited for carting the carpool to the high school football game.

Who says a station wagon has to be boring?

The 525i is loaded with standard features such as a reverse tilt driver’s-side outboard mirror and automatic dual-zone climate control. The 525i falls between the E320 and VW GLS V-6.

The GLS is packed with standard amenities such as a sunroof and eight-speaker audio system with cassette and CD player.

The engine actually packs a bit more punch than the 525i and carries less weight than either of the other two wagons covered here.

The remarkably smooth 30-valve V-6 produces 190 horsepower and does an admirable job of getting the GLS wagon off the line.

Passat is nimble and finely suited for city traffic, yet it delivers a big sedan’s ride quality.

The steering is crisp, and it brakes with authority.

The Passat GLS wagon provides a terrific way to enjoy a German station wagon without breaking the bank.

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