Auto Market Review
The short answer is, of course, no! Europeans have known something for quite some time that has seemed to elude the American automobile industry. Wagons can be fun to drive, spunky and stylish while also being practical methods of transportation. The stereotype of the "station wagon" has suffered in the US due to the image projected by the ill-handling, boat-like domestic behemoths of years gone past. Sure they were very practical and very spacious, but they couldn't be called stylish or fun by any stretch of the imagination. Enter the new age of the "wagon". Our group of five modern import wagons does much to dispel this stereotype and they don't make you feel like you've given anything up in exchange for more cargo room.
Making a Good First Impression (Exterior)
Audi has a history of penning classic body styles. The current A4 is no exception as it takes its cues from the current generation A6, which is timeless in its own right. The gentle curves of the body and the tight build quality evoke a feeling of solidity, like the car was carved from a single block of wood. The overall design is complete and emotional without shouting, "Look at me!" The gently sloping D-Pillar completes an extremely well balanced vehicle (aesthetically) that will easily make you forget your original reasons for buying a wagon. If you want a car that will age well stylistically and portray it's sporting intentions in a subtle manner, this is your car. Look no further.
The BMW has a slightly more aggressive and athletic feeling than the Audi, befitting it's "Ultimate Driving Machine" moniker. While the BMW's body style has benefited from subtle enhancements over the years, it's beginning to stray from BMW's new corporate image currently projected by the new 7-Series and 5-Series. Whether you like the new Bangle-ized styling or hate it, you can't ignore the fact that the 3-Series is starting to look a little left behind. It's styling is attractive, but when placed next to it's stable mates, the 3 just looks a little neglected. If you like your car with an athletic attitude, the BMW will not disappoint.
The C240 exudes luxury from the moment you set eyes on it. The baby E-class styling lends a certain upscale feeling to Mercedes entry-level model. The C240 wagon's style is not aggressive, nor is it edgy, but it's thoroughly modern and gives off an air of opulence befitting it's asking price. "Don't rush me" it seems to say to prospective operators, "Enjoy the ride and relax". The only aesthetic flaw I can see without being too nit-picky is that the rear end of the car appears a bit bulbous and the styling might be a bit too "mature" for this segment. While not as athletic as the BMW and not as nicely balanced as the Audi, the Mercedes has it's own unique verve and does not offend.
Being the newest competitor in the field, GM found a quick way for Saab to gain entry. It called up Subaru and ordered a few customized WRX's. Ok, ok, while the interior is pretty blatantly copied (more on that later), some good work was done on the outside to distinguish the 9-2X so it could command a premium in price over the WRX. The front fascia is most decidedly Saab, no bones about it. From the front grill, to the headlights, it's unmistakable. The same goes for the wheel choices, which are also indicative of Saab influences. That's about where the Saab influence ends. The rest of the body is indistinguishable from the WRX wagon, from the functional hood scoop to the taillights, to the thick C-pillar. Now, the WRX - in my opinion - isn't a terrible looking car, but that's when it's compared against competition at the low $20,000 range. Up in the highly competitive $30,000 level, it's styling becomes somewhat trendy and a little out of place. The Saab front end changes do a lot to save the overall appearance of the car though and the uneducated eye might not even recognize the similarities to the WRX. However, they are painfully obvious to this writer, especially the C-pillar shape and overall back end design of the car. Putting aside the economical Impreza origins of the body, the Saab 9-2X is aggressively styled and is not bad looking at all, it just loses a little steam up at this price point. In the end though, one must realize that this 9-2X is merely a stop-gap vehicle and we can look forward to a wholly Saab styled vehicle for the next iteration.
Fresh from the mint comes the Volvo V50, decidedly more attractive than the last V40 and a look that stays consistent within the corporate image. However, you simply can't ignore the Germanic influence here, it seems as if Audi had a big hand in the V50's overall shape and design. While the back end is traditional Volvo with the stacked tail lamps, the front end has some decidedly A4-influenced design cues. From the lower valence vents to the headlamps, it seems Volvo took an A4 and just construed the design proportions a bit. However, if you're going to copy a competing manufacturer's design, the A4 was not a bad choice. Ignoring any outside influence, the V50 has a very smooth, classy appearance and seems a less bloated than the new similarly styled S40. However, though it's a matter of personal opinion, the stacked tail lamps seem to throw me off a bit. I understand they are kind of a Volvo trademark, and Volvo did do an admirable job of incorporating them into the design, but they just seem to throw off the balance of the car when viewed from a rear-quartering angle.
It's been said before, and I won't hesitate to say it again: Audi makes a damn good interior. Everything from the material choice and fitment to the design of the dash, gauges and center-stack is right on for this segment. Everything you could want to control is within reach, signifying attention to ergonomics, and while a bit cold to the touch, the interior of the A4 never fails to make you feel good about your purchase. Many journalists consider it the benchmark for interior design in this segment, and it's easy to see why.
The BMW does an admirable job with the ergonomics, "Driver oriented" is a good descriptor here, but there are a few things I think need attention. First of all, the interior is starting to look a little dated. It's not nearly as modern as many of the other cars in this comparo, and is definitely the "child left behind" when compared to it's own redesigned siblings. The steering wheel in the 325xiT looks like something straight out of the mid 90's, this could probably be attributed to the oversized wheel mounted controls, though. The window switches would also do better mounted on the driver's door (easier reach). Other than that, the interior is functional and works well. All it needs is some freshening and updating.
The Mercedes C-Class interior has improved from just a couple years ago. The center stack used to look a little cheap in my opinion, it kind of had fallen victim to the "if it's rounded, it's modern" theory of design. Now, however, the interior has been freshened and is much more modern. There is one thing that bothers me, though. The resemblance to some new Chrysler interiors when you look at details like the climate control and headlamp knobs is pretty obvious, at least to me. This might not sit well with consumers who pay a premium for the Mercedes brand, knowing that their "premium" interior has similarities to a much less expensive Chrysler vehicle. Overall, though, the interior of the C240 is excellently crafted and executed. It really is an opulent, luxurious interior - even for this segment. I guess you would expect that though considering it's group-high asking price. While extremely luxurious, the interior doesn't exactly come across as "sporty" as some of the other competitors. Something that you might consider important when shopping for a "sport wagon."
The Subaru WRX has a pretty good interior for its asking price. Whoever at GM thought the same interior could command up to $30k, especially without the 300 HP STi engine, by simply slapping a Saab 9-2X badge on the trunk needs to have their head examined. Expanses of silver-colored plastic characterize an interior that has too cheap a feeling to do effective battle against an interior of the Audi A4's caliber. Saab claims to have added additional sound dampening over the WRX to quiet the interior somewhat, but it's parts of the interior you see that are a little bit of a letdown. Sure, the seats are great, and the interior is very functional and driver oriented, but those are pretty much all the bright spots in this car's interior. The ignition is even in the wrong place for a Saab! If you're big on interior aesthetics and material quality, your nearly $30k can buy a much better sensory experience than what the 9-2X has to offer.
The last Volvo compact wagon, the V40, had a decent interior that was just beginning to look a little dated. The materials quality was "ok" and the fit and finish was good enough. For the new V50, Volvo has made big improvements on all fronts. The new interior is fresh, modern and has a quality appearance and feel. Though a bit cramped (at least for me), the interior of the new Volvo didn't disappoint with it's interpretation of sport-luxury. Almost no review of the V50 or S40 can finish without some mention of the "waterfall" center stack. A nod to the tech-savvy consumers that these two cars are marketed towards, the center stack is the center-piece of a unique, somewhat risque, but altogether alluring interior. It's too soon to tell if this design will look tired or dated quickly, but it's definitely a big jump in style for a company traditionally characterized by it's conservative nature.
Of course, some of these might not be important to some consumers, and yet others might require additional features not mentioned, but these could be considered what you'd expect when spending $30,000 on a new wagon. Keep in mind, many of the vehicles offer the above as option, but we will stick to what's included for the base MSRP to make things easier to look at. Awarding a point for each feature, the Mercedes earns the highest score with a 7, the Audi and Volvo are tied with 6 points, the BMW shuffles in 4.5 points (half a point awarded for standard "leatherette" seating surfaces), and the Saab comes in last with a measly 1 point. The Saab is clearly outclassed in terms of standard features, even by the BMW, but let's see what happens when we factor in each car's MSRP. Awarding 10 points for our lowest MSRP, and 1 point for our highest, the Mercedes comes in last at a MSRP of $35,350 and the Saab comes in first at a group low of $26,950. The other three will obtain points proportionate to where they fit in between these two extremes. Using this method, the Volvo receives 8 points, the Audi gets 7 points and the BMW picks up 3 points. Totaling up the two scores, we find the Volvo just edges out the Audi with 14 and 13 points respectively to win the value title. The Saab picks up a lot of points for its low price and comes in third overall with 11 points. The Mercedes finishes fourth with 8 points, while the BMW staggers in with 7.5 points.
The Final Review