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AMR Comparo: Sport Wagon Shoot Out
    Managing Editor
    Comparison by Request of AMR Forum Member ralphb

So you've been enjoying your import sport sedan for awhile now. The crisp handling, brisk acceleration and style to match have you elated every time you get behind the wheel. However, now life has changed because of (insert your reason here) and you suddenly need a bigger car with more cargo space. You cringe at the thought of having to use a SUV for your daily travels, but the only other direction to go is to a wagon. While more economical than going for a top-heavy SUV, you fear losing that wonderful feeling you get behind the wheel. Do you have to give up driving pleasure because your life's priorities have changed? Do you really have to give up the stylistically modern image of your sport sedan for a - say it with me - wagon??

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.

The Players
For this comparo, we've rounded up some of the newest competitors along with some stalwarts of the segment. Saab and Volvo bring brand new vehicles to the table, in their 9-2X and V50, respectively. However, while Volvo is not new at the compact sport wagon game (with the preceding V40 wagon), these are uncharted waters for Saab having only had a wagon form for the mid-size 9-5. Audi, BMW and Mercedes are the perennial German contenders, and while their models have been on the market longer than the others, they are just as competitive. Audi comes to the game with the A4 1.8T Quattro, BMW brings it's 325xi Touring and Mercedes presents it's C240 4-Matic. You'll probably notice one common attribute among all these vehicles, that is that they all have All-Wheel-Drive. AWD has been gaining popularity recently and for good reason. It allows your average driver to access most of a car's performance potential without getting into trouble and it gives you superior all-weather mobility compared with FWD and RWD. Those two benefits make it an ideal feature in a vehicle that's supposed to be sport-minded as well as practical all-season transportation. We would have liked to compare manual transmission equipped versions of each of these cars, but the Mercedes lacks such an option. So, in order to keep the playing field level, every car will be equipped with an automatic transmission.

A4 1.8T Avant
V50 T5 AWD
9-2X Aero
325xi Touring
C240 4-Matic
Price $29,150 $28,910 $26,950 $32,550 $35,350
Engine 1.8L I-4 Turbo 2.5L I-5 Turbo 2.0L H-4 Turbo 2.5L I-6 2.6L V-6
Tranny 5-spd Tiptronic 5-spd Geartronic 4-spd Automanual 5-spd STEPTRONIC 5-spd TouchShift
HP / Torque 170 / 166 218 / 236 227 / 217 184 / 175 168 / 177
EPA C / H 22 / 31 21 / 29 20 / 26 19 / 26 19 / 25
0-60 (sec) 8.7 7.2 6.8 9.0 9.2
Rear Storage* 27.8 / 60.6 ft3 14.7 / 62.7 ft3 27.9 / 61.6 ft3 15.4 / 57.1 ft3 25.2 / 63.6 ft3
Warranty 4 / 50k 4 / 50k 4 / 50k 4 / 50k 4 / 50k
Curb Weight (lbs) 3516 3483 3179 3594 3470
*Seat Up/Seat Down

Making a Good First Impression (Exterior)Volvo V50
The most poignant stigma surrounding wagons are that they are not the most attractive vehicles in the automotive world. It is safe to say that every one of these five vehicles does itself justice and also does it's fair share of making that statement as false as can be. Now that that is over, let's get down to business!

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.

The Verdict
Styling is always a matter of preference, so the safest way to pick a victor here is to choose the car that represents the most balanced package. Out of these five, I believe the Audi strikes a delicate balance of athleticism, class, and enduring, attractive styling. On the other end of the spectrum, the Saab, while attractive in it's own right, just doesn't come across as mature enough to play in this crowd. Of course, that's probably a bright spot for some consumers, but it just doesn't sit well with this writer. Those two vehicles pretty much bookend a toss-up for the middle spots. The Volvo V50 and BMW 325 in my mind strike a tie for second place, as neither does much wrong, but they just aren't as balanced as they could be. The C240's decidedly luxury-oriented styling just seems a bit too mature when compared to the rest, however, just as with the Saab, this could be a selling point for some consumers.

Interior Design
This is what usually makes or breaks a car vying for a share in this competitive market segment. Buyers here are looking for an interior that makes them feel like they spent more than they actually did, while providing niceties that you wouldn't normally find on your typical mainstream wagon. All of these vehicles are pretty close in passenger space, so the focus will be on interior design and maximum available cargo space.

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.

The Verdict
Like the exterior design, interior style is also subjective. The winning wagon should evoke a sporty yet luxurious feeling in the owner. With this in mind, there are actually two wagons that fit the bill perfectly. The A4 and V50 have very different characteristics, but they both have an awesome appeal to them. The Audi for its excellently wrought cabin and classic styling and the Volvo for it's simple, unique, and very modern appearance. It's hard to choose one over the other because each has it's own successful approach to interior design. It'll just have to be a draw for now. The very luxurious, yet not-too-sporty Mercedes cabin comes in next, with the somewhat tired BMW following close and the economical Saab brings up the rear. However, when we factor in maximum available cargo space, the order changes up a bit. The Volvo, affording the second largest cargo hold, nudges ahead of the A4 in the lineup. While the Mercedes has the largest cargo hold in the group, I don't feel it's enough to overcome the Audi for second place. That is, unless the 3 cubic foot difference between the Audi and Merc is make or break for the consumer.

On paper, it's pretty easy to see which car should be the quickest and handle the best, but many times more than not the actual dynamic experience differs from what the numbers would suggest. The Saab is a great example of this. It would seem the 9-2X is clearly the hot-rod of this comparo if you just look at the 0-60 time. However, what the numbers don't tell you is what you have to do to achieve those numbers. The Saab's 2.0L turbocharged Subaru Boxer engine has some nasty turbo-lag that requires some brake-torquing (not recommended, with the automatic) to achieve such a good time. The Volvo's turbocharged inline five-cylinder is livelier at low RPMs by comparison, probably due to the massive 236 lb-ft of torque available at a very low 1500 RPMs (and the extra cylinder). What this means is that the Volvo feels more powerful, even though the HP numbers might not indicate this, but torque is what pushes you into your seat when you step on the gas. The three Germans are pretty languid, bordering on underpowered. The Audi at least feels like it has some life due to the turbocharger packing air into its cylinders, and the BMW's inline-6 is sublime in it's power delivery, but the C240 is just downright underpowered for a car of its mass. While the engine is a smooth runner, it just doesn't have the cojones to really deserve a "sport wagon" title. As far as engine performance goes, it would seem it depends on your preference of power delivery. For overall excellent performance and supreme drivability, the V50 seems to be the winner. On the other hand, if you are willing to deal with a little turbo-lag and work to keep the engine on the boil, the 9-2X might better fit you. Should you choose any of these cars (except the Mercedes), I would heartily recommend you obtain a manual transmission version. The ability to have complete control over the engine and transmission allows you to derive the most excitement from these cars, especially with the 9-2X, which is much quicker with the 5-speed manual.

This is another category where it depends on what the consumer needs, but there are a few key features that should be standard at this level of purchasing power. In my opinion, these features should include:

  • Power driver's seat
  • Express Up/Down Front Windows
  • Tilt/Telescoping Steering Wheel
  • Dual Zone Automatic Climate Control
  • Sunroof
  • Heated seats
  • Leather Seating
  • CD Changer
  • Full Size Spare
  • Trip Computer

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
You really couldn't go wrong with any of these five. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but the car that strikes the best compromise here will be our winner. Looking back on the areas we covered, it would seem the Volvo is our surprising victor. With it's modern, clean exterior styling, unique and sporty interior design, excellent performance and supreme value, the V50 should be a big hit for Volvo. Volvo has been enjoying an improving image in the eyes of the consumer for the past few years and is now seen as a premium nameplate with better than average resale. It seems as if Volvo is heading in a good direction and if this new V50 is any indication of what we can expect, I'm personally very excited about future Volvo models. Now, how about the rumored S40R to give Audi S4 buyers something to think about?


Sport Hatch, Wagon, Sport Wagon, Whatever


Well, that's quite a bit to chew, so I best try to take it in bite sized pieces. Let's go brand by brand.

Mercedes. Yes, they do have a cargo space advantage, but not with the way the D pillar cuts in. Usable cargo space gets limited to low objects unless you want to drive around with the gate open. The Audi has a nice sweep to the trunk as well, but not as bad as in the Mercedes. I think that, in every day use, the Audi would have a better cargo hold. Otherwise, this is a fine car, but MAN, is it expensive and it just seems, well, frumpy. Sure, it's luxurious and all, but it also feels like a car for someone in their 40s or 50s and not 20s or 30s. I think the other cars in this test fit the younger demographic of a "sport wagon" better.

BMW. Tim, I have to disagree about the interior here. Thank god this isn't the same as in the 5 or 7. Those are dull interiors that suffer from iDrivitis - a terrible inflamation of technology-for-technology-sake. I think the overall interior is great in the 3, but the wheel has got to go. I also don't much care for the amber glow of BMWs.

Audi. Great looking car, great materials, handles well (though not as well as the BMW). It basically does everything exceptionally well yet never seems to come off as exceptional. That could be because I'm 6'2" and feel very cramped in the A4. It is not the fastest and suffers from turbo lag, but you can put a performance chip in it for $300, and then it rocks. My only real complaint other than the tight quarters is the red interior lighting. It's too hard to see. That said, it's better than the BMW amber or Mercedes yellow. I guess I'm spoiled by my VW's cool blue lighting and the TL's LED lighting. And, Ingolstat, if you're listening, where the heck is the Nav? You cannot continue to keep this from the US when all of your competitors offer it.

Saab(aru). Great package, nicely enhanced dynamics from WRX, but not at home in this company. It's outclassed in every sense. I do like it, but I'd never consider it if I was looking at any of these other cars except perhaps the Volvo because it's also Swedish. I just don't know what this thing wants to be other than a nicely upgraded WRX. If that's its mission, it doesa great job. If its mission is to be a competitive player in the import sport wagon arena, then it fails. When the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series make it to the US, I think this little Saab will have some more approrpiately matched competition. Of course, the Germans will still be offering nicer cars, and they'll probably start out cheaper than the Saab.

Volvo. Awesome in and out, but too small for my size. I do love it, though. If it handles like I hope it does (like an A4), then it'll be a winner. If it handles like an S60, then it'll be a car to pass on. If they ever build a V50R, then that would be a great little wagon because it would pack AWD, tight handling and a stick. But, Tim, how a S40R with a turbo 5 could match an S4 with a V8 eludes me. It might be as fun to drive, but the S4 would no doubt destroy it. If I could fit comfortably, this would be the car I'd get in this space.