Auto Market Review
The second to last would have been the Passat because it is old at this point, but the Subie also seemed to fall apart when moving from sedan (the Legacy sedan is quite athletic and attractive looking) to wagon. The rear lights and tail area especially are weak. I don't know what they were trying to achieve with the rear lights, but they failed...whatever it was, they failed. Also, the roof's elongation for wagon duty ends up making the front end of the car look too squeezed. The sedan pulls this off better as its roof flows into the overall shape rather than making anything stand out as awkward. Sorry, Fuji Heavy and GM, the wagon doesn't cut it here. That's bad news since the wagon version of the Legacy and Outback outsells the sedan version of each by a large margin.
Third place will be the Passat. Elegant and refined, it is getting old. It has no freshness anymore, yet does not look dated per se. I am just not excited by it anymore. That said, it is an incredibly well executed design. The mid-life freshening given to the Passat in 2001.5 did wonders in making it look even more elegant. Before, the shape was what made it look classy, and in 2001.5 they added several key details (grille, lights in front and back and some light chrome accents) to make the entire package classy. It's time has come to be evolved, though.
First is going to be the super bad-ass Magnum. The Chrysler 300 looks amazing, and the Magnum looks just as good. It says a lot when a car as expressive as the 300 can be transformed into a wagon and still be that expressive and successful in its design. While you may not personally want to own a Magnum due to its looks, there's no denying how bold and well done they are. It's like music. I may not personally like an artist, but I can still respect their talent.
The Passat has a very simple and straight-forward interior. It employs excellent quality materials, and is conservative and elegant. It does not succumb to the aluminum-look craze that seems to be sweeping the industry. Nicely patterned plastics with good, plush feel, and a few very well-placed chrome accents around the shifter, gauges and door handles are the key design elements here. A few gripes, though. One, while fit and finish is top, the internals of the parts don't seem to be fitted or finished quite as well. VWs are notoriously hard to build and repair, and the result is rattles and improperly assembled parts, or, worse yet, parts broken during assembly or repair. Owning a Passat for 2 years after a owning a Toyota for 7 (and a Nissan for 2 before that) has driven me insane. I have one rattle in the rear driver's side door that won't go away. Thing is, it's right in my ear. The dealer has tried five times to remedy it to no avail. The door is full of foam now, and the technicians broke a few other things while trying to fix the rattling, but I'm no better off. So, look and feel is tops in the Passat, but beneath the skin, you better pray you got lucky with your Passat. The other gripe is with the A/C. It's not terribly strong, and getting the vents to hit you where you want them to is maddening. Why? Well, VW has used a very sexy set of vents that can completely close off, and employ two wheels for adjustment; one for vertical slats and one for horizontal slats. This complete closing is a personal preference of retired VW Chairman and CEO Ferdinand Pietch, who is prone to catching colds. It looks great, but adjusting two separate dials can make getting air on you hard as you have to gauge the vertical and horizontal axes separately. It's usually an exercise in fine tuning and a bit of futility. Storage space is also a strong point of the Passat, with good door storage, a somewhat good glove box, center bin and little nooks and crannies elsewhere for things like the manual and sunglasses. This car is good for parents who need to stash toys and bottles. Also, seat-up storage is tops in this bunch. The Passat sedan has a great trunk, so the wagon had nowhere to go but up, literally.
The Subaru is the sharpest of the bunch inside. It uses aluminum looking parts, but it does so better than many other cars (especially many other GM-family vehicles). The gauge cluster is easy to read, and just plain cool. The designers did a great job on this one. Storage is ok, and materials are pretty good. Not up to the Passat's standards, but still not bad. Where the Subie has traditionally fallen down is in the rear seat. The previous Legacy's bench is too short, it's hard to get your feet under the front seats, and the position it puts someone like me, at 6'2", in is just not comfortable. I seem to have my knees in my face and my head cocked to fit under the roof. These are not positions I typically have to combined in wagons, and I'm actually commenting on the Outback wagon, which has a raised roof, so the plain Legacy version would only be worse. The new one is a little better, but not much. If you have kids, I doubt they'd care. If you have teenagers, or plan on having your kids grow and age as they are known to do, this may be an issue. My parents had a nearly 5' 2nd grader on their hands with me, so such a car would have been a real problem.
The Mazda is neat. That's a nice way of saying it tries hard, does ok, but doesn't wow anyone. The Mazda designers were really trying to do something more exciting than the 626, which was the paradigm of bland, and they succeeded. It's clear in evaluating the Mazda3 interior that the 6 was the boys in Hiroshima breaking out of their shell about 70% of the way, and then moving past their final reservations. Where the 3 is exciting, the 6 is neat...again, I use that word. Storage in the 6 is fair, and rear seat room is nothing to write home about. Rear space with the seats up is competitive, while seat down space is second to last, just ahead of the Passat by three and a half cubic feet. I like the 6, and want it to do better, but it's just a very solid car, nothing more, nothing less.
The Magnum, for all its glitz and pizzazz outside is dull inside. The DCX cost control folks clearly went to work here. A couple of touches of chrome do little to offset the somewhat low-grade plastic that abounds. To be sure, if you have a history of depression, this is not the car for you. A large dark gray plastic horizon is all you will see, and the slits for windows won't help much. Storage is another story, and seat comfort is quite good in the Magnum...at least in front. That cool looking slope to the roof really cuts rear head room, and, even worse, rear seat-up storage. The Magnum holds a hair over 27 cubic feet of stuff in the back, whereas the others average nearly 10 cubic feet more. Seats folded, though, the Magnum is in a class of its own thanks to the long wheelbase. With 5.4 cubic feet more storage than the second place Subaru, the Magnum is SUV-like in its ability to swallow loads...long loads, too. Also, Dodge engineers where very smart with the hatch, and have gotten much attention for this. They recognized that the severe slope in the roofline made getting into the back with a normal rear gate an exercise in racking up chiropractor bills. So, they cut the gate into the roof by a bit over a foot, moving the pivot point back, and allowing a much higher lift-over. It's not too high to grab again, but it's high enough for most people to comfortably load the rear. Also, changing a baby in the back will be easier thanks to this innovation. It should be noted that, since this is a RWD car, you will have more intrusion into the rear seats from the tunnel than in the others (the Subie being an exception, but still not as bad as in the Dodge).
Also, one should consider repair and maintenance costs in their value decision. VW gets destroyed here, plain and simple. If you take a Passat to Valvoline or Jiffylube, be prepared to make a trip to the dealer soon after to fix whatever they couldn't figure out while changing your oil, like your belly pan. VWs are very hard to work on. The Subie is also somewhat expensive for repairs, but the dealerships are quite adept in their repairs. Mazda dealers are both talented and offer reasonable parts costs. The Magnum is a mixed bag. It could have a great repair record because of the Mercedes E Class underpinnings, but it's also a mostly unique and new car, and there was some extensive cost-cutting done in it. Some Dodge dealers charge astronomically high hourly rates (as with VW), so repairs to a Magnum could be tough. Still, parts costs aren't terrible for Dodges, so that may balance things out.
As for resale, none of the cars is exceptional. The Dodge could prove to do well, but American cars have not been paradigms of value retainers. Chances are, the Subaru is the one to go for if resale value is your thing. But, If you're worried about resale, you are looking in the wrong place. That's a game to be played with luxury cars or Toyotas and Hondas. Otherwise, either buy for the long term or jump at a great lease promotion.
The Final Review
The Magnum is awesome. Just awesome. But, it's very new, and I've been bitten by a brand new Chrysler car before (1st generation Intrepid). There are reasons not to fear the Magnum, namely the Mercedes content in it, but there are still a whole lot of new ideas and parts in there. I'm also not sure I could live with the tiny windows, but MAN do those thing look cool! Let me put it like this, if you like the Magnum, I don't think you'd be making a mistake with it. Plus, you'd be hard pressed to find people who would tell you are driving a mommy-mobile, which Passat drivers will get.
The Subaru is a tough one to judge. It looks pretty good, though the sedan really looks great. The interior is cool, but not if you're in back, and the handling and power are a blast, at least for a wagon. The thing just isn't that inexpensive. Sure, the AWD version of the Passat and Magnum won't really be cheaper, but you're still talking about almost 30 large here, and you aren't even getting leather. I think they need to reevaluate their pricing.
So, if you can deal with the looks of it, the Mazda is your best overall bet here. Cheap to buy, cheap to own, worry-free, relatively good space and performance, plus a V6 where most competitors are pushing a four banger. It's just hard to ignore the value of this thing if you have a family. Car payments on top of food for four people, housing costs, utilities, etc really matter. That you could get this car that stickers for just over $26k for $24k without much work haggling says a lot. You could get it fully loaded, and you'd still be talking about $26k after negotiations. The only thing is, you had better hurry up and take the plunge. Mazda is doing better and better as time goes on, so they aren't going to continue to be the also-rans of the industry for long, especially if they keep making cars like the 3 and 6...well, mostly the 3. When that happens, the 6 will be harder to negotiate a complete steal on.
If it was my money, I'd get the Subaru, but I wouldn't get the wagon if you paid me. I suppose if you were paying me, it wouldn't be my money anymore, now would it?