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Finding the Best Station Wagon of 2000


Finding the Best Station Wagon of 2000

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Finding the Best Station Wagon of 2000

From the April 2000 issue of Car and Driver.

The good news for the station-wagon faithful is that for 2000, the palette of available two-box nameplates from which to choose broadens by two to 19. Newcomers this year include the Saturn L-series, the BMW 323i, the Volvo V40, and the Ford Focus (which replaces the Escort and Mercury Tracer wagons).

It’s tempting to think the market is finally listening to us. For years, we’ve commended the wagon’s lower center of gravity, better power-to-weight ratio, easier maneuverability, and inherently more carlike handling behavior relative to minivans and sport-utility vehicles. And wagons can generally match the cargo capacity of utes. By our practical measurements, the average family wagon (the four in this test are the biggest you can get these days) can carry more boxes, a longer pipe, and a bigger piece of plywood than can the average of the last 11 small and mid-size SUVs we’ve comparison-tested.

But as much as we’d like to think we’ve convinced our fellow motorists to climb down from their high-rise, low-efficiency, view-blocking SUVs and get back on the ground floor of dynamic driving enjoy­ment, the facts suggest otherwise. Wagon sales have just kept pace with the booming car market while SUV sales continue to expand with the vigor of fissioning uranium.

Now, other magazines might be con­tent to wring their hands and pose rhetorical questions about when the dopes buying SUVs will wise up and discover the virtues of the wagon, but not this one. We dig deep to answer even the rhetorical questions.

In this instance, we figured the best way to do that was to load up four family wagons and set a course for New Orleans—the epicenter of American voodoo wor­ship and practice—to consult the ancestral spirits for some definitive answers. Of course, the fact that N’awlins lays claim to the oldest bar in the U.S., the best food in the South, and some of the most outra­geous nightlife in Christendom was imma­terial in our choice of a destination for this winter retreat. Really.

We last compared family wagons in July 1994. Of the six vehicles in that face­-off, three have been discontinued (the wagon variants of the Honda Accord, the Mitsubishi Diamante, and the Toyota Camry). Two have been redesigned—­twice (the Mercury Sable and the Subaru Legacy). The winning VW Passat has been significantly upgraded to share engines and a basic suspension design with the Audi A4. And a single newcomer joins the family-wagon segment this year—the Saturn L-series.

So let’s head south to the marshes, bayous, and plantations of Ascension Parish and the bustling boulevards of New Orleans during Carnival in search of the best family wagon—via our traditional objective and subjective tests—and some ethereal prophesying about the future of wagoning. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

4th Place: Subaru Legacy Outback Limited

We’d better admit right up front that this Outback Limited model, dressed in SUV drag with knobby tires, cladding, and jumbo fog lamps, was not our first choice of Subarus for this test. On this trip, we’re wagon advocates, remember? Loaded to the gills with dual sunroofs, leather, an in­-dash CD changer, heated seats, and even heated windshield wipers, this Subaru busted the budget big time at $27,900. What’s more, all that luxury burdened it with a portly 3625-pound curb weight—porkiest in this group. Had a less opulent, more sporting $24,190 GT wagon been available—especially ­with a manual transmission—the results might have been different.

HIGHS: Quiet, rigid body structure; luxurious appointments.
Insufficient power and rear-seat space, poor handling from high-rise suspension.
The perfect rig for families that always take vacations in the rain or snow.

For 2000, a rather mild restyling job belies bigger changes beneath the Legacy’s skin. The structure has been beefed up, with special attention paid to side-impact protection. Two beams now reinforce each front door, and the rear wheel-arch structure is fortified, as are the B-pillars. Unibody reinforcements mean the new wagon resists bending twice as well as the old one, which translates to an exceptionally rattle- and shake-free ride.

Changes to the flat-four engine are similarly deceiving. Although it produces nearly the same peak output as last year’s engine (165 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque) from the same 2.5 liters, the engine is all-new. Its single-overhead-cam design is more compact and more fuel efficient and is said to crank out more low-end and part-throttle performance than its DOHC predecessor. That may be true, but it’s not enough to overcome the friction and rotational inertia of the standard all-wheel drive and that scale-pegging curb weight. A couple more cylinders or a turbo or both are urgently needed.

At the track, the Sube ran just ahead of the 155-hp Taurus, reaching 60 mph in a leisurely 10.7 seconds. Passing requires advanced planning, and momentum conservation becomes the order of the day.

Exacerbating the weak straight-line performance in a test that never ventured off-road were the Outback’s sport-ute-pretender underpinnings. The suspension is raised, and taller P225/60HR-16 Firestone Wilderness tires are fitted to provide 7.3 inches of ground clearance (an inch more daylight than tarmac-only Legacys). This setup provides commendable ride isolation over sharp impacts but results in more fore-and-aft hobby horsing over dips in the road, more body roll, and peculiar behavior in transient maneuvers. There’s some imprecision as the tire tread blocks lean in curves, and the body rolls noticeably before taking a set. We think the GT’s 205/55R-16s would work better here.

Our Subaru fell short in one other area of perhaps greater importance to the vacationing family. The rear seat, which thoughtfully provides headrests and shoulder belts for three, lacks head and shoulder room for three teenagers. Nixing the dual sunroofs would help.

On the plus side, the cargo hold ranks average in this group by most of our measurements, and the luggage rack is the only one to offer crossbars with accessory mounting points. The Legacy wagon also felt extremely refined and well-built—only the Volkswagen was quieter on the highway.

Put simply, the Outback just isn’t our kind of wagon. But if its SUV-like trap­pings fool anyone into choosing it over an Explorer, we’ll endorse it heartily.

2000 Subaru Legacy Outback Limited
165-hp flat-4, 4-speed automatic, 3625 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,590/$27,900
60 mph: 10.7 sec
1/4 mile: 18.0 sec @ 76 mph
100 mph: 36.1 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.75 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

3rd Place: Ford Taurus SE

This is as close as any vehicle comes to the station wagons of the Donna Reed and Brady Bunch eras. The Taurus and its Sable sibling are now the only middle­-class family wagons to offer a third rear­-facing seat, and thus passenger seating for eight. Our Taurus was the longest and widest car in this test, and not surprisingly, it offered the most space for carrying pas­sengers and cargo.

It hauls 81 cubic feet of stuff with the rear seats folded down (just one cubic foot less than an Explorer holds). It has the longest and most useful roof-top luggage rack. The rear glass opens independently of the liftgate for loading grocery sacks. And when not in use, the well where the third seat stows can be used as a lockable storage area. The only hitch is a cargo shade that’s mounted so low above the floor that anything taller than 11.5 inches makes a bulge in it. (Shades in the other cars offer four to eight more inches of clearance.)

HIGHS: Runaway winner in the cargo-hauling contest, similarly high marks for safety and value.
LOWS: Noisy engine comes up short on performance, rear bench belongs in a park.
VERDICT: The wagoniest wagon of the bunch.

Also racking up big family-value points is the Taurus’s safety record. In 1999, it was the only mid-size car to receive a top five-star rating for both the driver and front-seat passenger in government crash tests. And for 2000, “smart airbags” that tailor their inflation rate and force to the size and position of the occupant have been added, along with seatbelt preten­sioners and force limiters.

Among the other revisions made to the new Taurus are larger and brighter headlamps, new sheetmetal (except for the doors), and tweaks to the steering and chassis to improve directional stability. The chassis work was well worth the effort. This large wagon has not been reborn as nimble and tossable, but it is now communicative and well-behaved, going precisely where it is pointed with modest and tolerable body roll and absolutely no surprises. Its large size and lowest-in-test grip (0.74 g) caused it to run the lane change more slowly than the other cars, but it negotiated the cones with greater ease and poise than the next-best Subaru.

Where the Ford comes up short is in performance, refinement, and seat com­fort. Here again, our vehicle-availability juju let us down, as the only Taurus we could lay our hands on came with the low-­tech 155-hp Vulcan pushrod V-6. The smoother 200-hp Duratec DOHC six would have added just $695 to the price­—that’s $200 less than the price of the leather seats (an admittedly useful option for spill cleanup in a family car, now that vinyl is taboo).

Saddled with the poorest power-to­-weight ratio, the Taurus finished last in all the drag-racing categories. It lumbered to 60 mph in 10.9 seconds, accompanied by a coarse growl and vibration felt through the steering wheel and the optional adjustable pedals. Vibrations also rippled through the chassis when traversing rough roads, all of which conspired with a rather plasticky-looking dash to give the Ford a rather low-rent feel.

The other egregious misstep involves seating comfort, especially in back, where occupants find themselves on a hard, flat raised bench. And those carry-over doors mean that adults riding back there still get an eyeful of C-pillar when they glance to the side.

The Taurus can carry more travel toys and diversions, but comfier seats and better driving dynamics might make parents and kids happy traveling with a bit less in the next two wagons.

2000 Ford Taurus SE
155-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3521 lb
Base/as-tested price: $20,450/$23,320
60 mph: 10.9 sec
1/4 mile: 18.1 sec @ 76 mph
100 mph: 44.3 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 196 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 23 mpg

2nd Place: Saturn LW2

Saturn’s new “large” sedan and wagon series is loosely based on the European Opel Vectra, and in this test, that Euro her­itage expressed itself as exuberant perfor­mance. Our upmarket LW2 model’s stan­dard 182-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 (the LW1 gets a 137-hp, 2.2-liter four-cylinder) easily powered this, the lightest car in the test at 3249 pounds, to victory in nearly all our acceleration tests. It dashed to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in just 16.0 seconds at 87 mph, its four-­speed automatic snapping off smooth shifts quicker than Bourbon Street balcony boys can toss a necklace to a flashing passerby. The Passat nipped at the Saturn’s heels in the standing-start tests, but the LW2’s quick-witted gearbox helped widen the performance gap in the passing and street-start contests.

Saturn also aced the lateral-grip test, with 205/65HR-15 Firestone Affinity HP tires that hung on for 0.79 g. The LW2 was praised for its generally sprightly, dynamic behavior, but its chassis could not quite match that of the Passat for poise and finesse. Stiff anti-roll bars on the Saturn resulted in more pronounced head toss over one-wheel dips. In quick transient maneuvers such as the lane change, the LW2 was more likely to step out in the rear, giving the VW a nearly 6-mph advan­tage in that test. And the Saturn’s strut-­front suspension transmits a bit of torque steer if the wheel is rotated at all with the hammer down.

HIGHS: Willing boy-racer drivetrain, good seats and cargo space.
LOWS: Saturn-familiar styling and panel fits, noisy engine.
VERDICT: Devotees of the marque will be more than satisfied.

Inside and out, the LW2 ranked second in size and hauling capacity. With the rear seats folded flat, it can accept 71 cubic feet of dunnage—one cube less than can a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Passenger space front and rear falls within one cubic foot of the larger Taurus, and the rear seat is reason­ably comfortable, offering good thigh support despite its lower seating position relative to the other wagons here.

Saturn wins another gold star in the value category. Our cloth-upholstered model with anti-lock brakes and traction control cost an impressive $22,890, and it’s precisely the Saturn we’d order. Skip the $1095 leather package (its front buckets are less comfortable) and the $220 premium speakers, one of which is on the floor of the cargo area, where it could easily collect dirt and grit.

Mitigating the strong value rating, however, is the LW2′ s scarcity of features and amenities and its low levels of refine­ment. That strong-performing engine, found elsewhere under the hoods of the Cadillac Catera and Saab 9-5 SE, feels as though it were bolted directly to the frame. It vibrates the car at idle, and it projects its voice clearly through the firewall at an unpleasant volume. Lots of wind and road noise penetrate the cabin, too, increasing fatigue on cross-country treks. And as with the smaller S-series Saturns, the plastic body panels are attached with lots of room to expand in the heat, meaning that in the winter a nutria (see glossary) could prac­tically squeeze through the door gaps.

Reliability, practicality, and value have long been hallmarks of the Saturn brand, and its disciples will feel right at home in this new model (they probably won’t even notice the noise and the panel gaps).

2000 Saturn LW2
182-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3249 lb
Base/as-tested price: $21,800/$22,890
60 mph: 7.8 sec
1/4 mile: 16.0 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 21.8 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 186 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

1st Place: Volkswagen Passat GLS V-6

All right, here we go again­—yes, this $27,880 V-6 Passat is expensive, and in this company, it clearly looks like it’s slum­ming, down for a visit from the genuine-wood class. We requested a base Passat GLS powered by the feisty little 150-hp, 1.8-liter turbo priced at $22,525 to start, but only the new-for-2000 2.8-liter 30-valve V-6 was available.

HIGHS: Bucks-up fit, finish, and chassis finesse.
LOWS: Bucks-up price.
VERDICT: Rear-seat comfort and cargo capacity meet a family’s needs, driving dynamics will delight the enthusiast.

That engine adds $2600 to the price, and mated to the $1075 five-speed automatic transmission, it generates velvety-smooth and quiet acceleration from any speed. It takes 8.0 seconds to hit 60 mph, about twice that for the quarter-mile. Those numbers are within a half-second of the 1.8-liter Passat wagon we tested in November 1998 (with a manual transmis­sion). That means that even if we’d gotten the car we asked for, the Passat’s finishing order at the drag strip would not have changed. (Its fuel economy might have been better, too. Over our 400-mile trip, the V-6 Passat gulped premium at the abysmal rate of 20 mpg.) That base car also runs on the same superb Audi A4-derived chassis, with the same multilink front and trailing-arm rear suspension that presses the tires to the tarmac with unmatched preci­sion. The same laser-accurate, frictionless steering that communicates every nuance of road-surface data. The same Continental 195/65HR-15 tires that generate modest grip (0.76 g here) in stoic silence. Our Passat sailed through the emergency lane change without drama at 62.7 mph, feeling as if the gates had widened by at least two feet.

Out in the real world, the Passat’s exceptionally rigid chassis absorbs bumps and imperfections quietly and with no gut­-jiggling repercussions. Highway miles slip by in near silence at 70 mph, with just a 67 or 68 dBA whisper—and that’s with either engine.

And the Passat acquits itself well in the people- and stuff-hauling categories as well. Despite being the shortest car in the group, measuring 13.8 inches shorter than the Taurus, its upright greenhouse makes the most of interior space. With the seats up, it matches the Taurus’s 39 cubic feet of cargo capacity; the rear seat is five cubic feet smaller, but vertical C-pillars and the large, square windows make it look and feel bigger than the Taurus, which accounts for its first-place ranking in the rear-seat comfort category. (Top marks in the styling column further vindicate the choice made regarding greenhouse shape.) The rear doors also open wider for easier access. Alas, when the seat are folded down, the Passat’s smaller size can no longer be disguised—the max capacity is 56 cubic feet, the smallest in the group.

Adding to the impression that this car is visiting from the next rung up on the prestige ladder are the Passat’s impressive build quality and luxury touches, such as free scheduled maintenance for two years or 40,000 miles and a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

We agreed unanimously that Volks­wagen’s latest Passat makes the most artic­ulate argument for buying a wagon rather than any of the more cumbersome hauling devices, regardless of which engine is specified. And for the SUV faithful hooked on all-wheel drive, VW’s new 4Motion system will soon be available on V-6 automatic models, priced at just $1650.

As we headed home from sunny New Orleans, belching day-old Cajun spices and nursing Hurricane hangovers, we were convinced of the veracity of Priestess Miriam’s prophesy: “Station wagons will return!”

2000 Volkswagen Passat GLS V-6
190-hp V-6, 5-speed automatic, 3382 lb
Base/as-tested price: $25,125/$27,880
60 mph: 8.0 sec
1/4 mile: 16.2 sec @ 87 mph
100 mph: 22.0 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 187 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

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