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We Determine the Best Station Wagon of 1994


We Determine the Best Station Wagon of 1994

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We Determine the Best Station Wagon of 1994

From the July 1994 issue of Car and Driver.

If we can believe our handsomely paid demographics consultants, then most of you reading this were children sometime between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s. And if our probability and statistics calculations are correct, then a rather large number of you spent some of your formative years relegated to the back seat of a station wagon. You might even have learned to drive in the Family Truckster, perhaps decorating it with a battle scar or two in the process.

Advertising of that bygone era glamorized the station wagon as the key to a life of blissful leisure for the All-American family. Ozzie clones lined up to buy wagons despite their high sticker prices (the wagon was often the priciest model in a series, even costing more than the convertible). A wagon was the perfect vehicle for hauling paneling or shrubbery back to the suburban homestead or for camping, fishing, and cross-country vacations.

As these pursuits grew in popularity during the decade after WWII, wagon sales exploded, from 1 percent of the market in 1946 to a peak of 17 percent and nearly a million units in 1959. By the late Sixties, burgeoning sales of light trucks and big vans dropped the wagon’s market share to below 10 percent. The hefty fuel price hikes of the Seventies dealt full-sized station wagons another blow. And the birth of the minivan halved the wagon’s share again.

Today, minivans have a lock on 8 percent of the total vehicle market, hauling kids, plywood, and stuff that families used to carry in station wagons. In many ways, the minivan is better suited to these tasks. Tall, upright packaging allows an equal or greater number of people and things to fit into a smaller and lighter vehicle. Parents can commute between the front and rear seats to settle the occasional border skirmish or wipe an ice-cream-stained face. And minivans provide superb visibility over traffic.

Minivan manufacturers like to talk about how “carlike” their vehicles ride and handle. But when it comes right down to it, minivans feel about as much like cars as tempeh tastes like hamburger or Sharp’s tastes like beer. Station wagons feel more like cars because they are cars, plain and simple.

Having tested the minivan field several times since our last station wagon comparison, we were eager to experience the ride and handling benefits of wagons and to weigh them against space and comfort concessions. And those of us who grew up crisscrossing the country on station-wagon vacations were curious to find out how the current crop of wagons compare with our fond recollections, and whether those glamorizing ad slogans might still apply.

We selected six well-equipped and reasonably stylish or sporting wagons priced in the low-to-mid-$20,000s. Then we loaded them with camping, hiking, and boating paraphernalia for a working vacation in the Hocking Hills region of southern Ohio. Here’s how they fared.

6th Place: Mitsubishi Diamante

The Diamante entered this competi­tion with a serious price handicap. Its double-take base price of $26,790 is well above all the other cars’ as-tested prices. The difference can be traced to the Diamante’s Australian pedigree, not to an abundance of standard equipment. Our car stickered at nearly $30,000 with leather upholstery, so we instructed edi­tors to overlook the leather and assess it as if it were the $27,662 cloth car. It still ranked last in value.

HIGHS: Beautiful and smooth, inside and out.
LOWS: High price, low power, legs of Jell-O.
VERDICT: The turnpike cruiser of the bunch.

In ride and handling, the Mitsubishi perhaps most closely approximates our recollection of the old family wagon. An unsophisticated rigid-axle rear suspension and soft damping result in the best boule­vard ride but the most flaccid handling. Oodles of bushing compliance and over­boosted steering assist give the Dia­mante a squirmy, non-linear turn-in that leads to big understeer.

At 3704 pounds, the Diamante is also the heaviest wagon here, and its syrupy smooth 175-horse V-6 struggles to provide modest performance. The Dia­mante finished last in nearly every accel­eration test, and we fear that when bur­dened with family and gear, its limited passing power would imprison this wagon behind Winnebagos and semis on twisty, hilly two-lane highways.

On the upside, the Diamante looks beautiful inside and out. It offers the richest interior, good ergonomics, and comfortable seats front and rear. Rear­-seat occupants get a wide center arm­rest, an adjustable backrest, and read­ing lamps—all of which should keep the whining and fighting to a minimum.

The box in back of this wagon earns high marks for its broad, low load floor and 48-inch-wide hatch opening. With just 45 inches between the wheel wells, sheets of plywood and paneling will rest on a slight angle, but they will slide into the Diamante better than into any of the other wagons.

1994 Mitsubishi Diamante
175-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3704 lb
Base/as-tested price: $26,790/$27,662
Passenger volume, behind F/R: 54/44 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 37/72 ft3
60 mph: 10.6 sec
1/4-mile: 17.9 sec @ 80 mph
100 mph: 31.1 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 193 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.72 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg

5th Place: Mercury Sable LS

Ford was the number-one seller of wagons for years, and the Taurus and Sable lead the market today by a wide margin. It should therefore come as no surprise that this Sable handles wagoning tasks the best. It carries the most people (eight), and it has the most space inside. Thoughtful touches abound, like a rear window that can be opened without opening the hatch and a net to keep parcels contained in the back of the wagon.

HIGHS: Space for eight people or 83 cubic feet of stuff.
Dull chassis dynamics, uncomfortable seats.
Counters the Windstar as the most minivan-like car.

We strongly recommend the $150 optional rear-facing third seat, even if you never plan on sentencing anyone to sit back there (padding is almost nil; ditto for head, leg, and hip room). The beauty of this option is that it moves the spare tire out from under the deck and puts it in an otherwise useless space on the side of the cargo area. This leaves lots of space in the well beneath the tiny third-­seat cushions for stowing gear. It also makes the spare easier to get at when the cargo bay is loaded. The Sable’s luggage rack wins big points with its tie-down hooks and accessory-mounting points.

The Sable imitates a minivan quite well. Unfortunately, its impression of a spry sedan isn’t as convincing. From the moment the driver climbs in, a high cowl, smallish windows, and flat unsupportive bench seats seem to whisper the message, “Easy in the turns fella’, yer drivin’ a big car.” If unheeded, the sentiment is re­emphasized by squealing from the tires. From the logbook: “Steering is mushy and turn-in sluggish,” and “Lots o’ tire squeal. Even the platform seems to groan when you load it hard in cor­ners—good ride though.”

With the loosest grip on the skidpad, the longest braking distance from 70 mph, and a somewhat groany V-6 engine that managed only midpack numbers, the Sable ranked second to last in the fun-to-drive and handling categories. Its last-place ratings in driver and rear-seat comfort helped seal its fifth-place finish.

1994 Mercury Sable LS
140-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3489 lb
Base/as-tested price: $21,645/$22,835
Passenger volume, behind F/R/3rd: 53/47/28 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 38/83 ft3
60 mph: 9.6 sec
1/4-mile: 17.3 sec @ 78 mph
100 mph: 33.1 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 197 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.71 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

4th Place: Subaru Legacy Touring

Take everything we’ve said about the Diamante and Sable and reverse it 180 degrees and you just about have our take on the Subaru. This featherweight flyer carves up twisty roads far more eagerly than any other wagon in the bunch. Its four driven tires cling to the road tenaciously, the fronts passing every byte of surface information right from the contact patches to the driver through a perfectly weighted steering system.

HIGHS: Brass and spunky drivetrain, fly-paper traction and handling.
Flexy body, buzzy engine, fade-prone brakes.
The best wagon for carving up a mountain road—if the family can hang on.

A turbocharged and intercooled flat-four and a close-ratio four-speed automatic add to the fun in low-speed point-and-squirt running. The turbo spools up quickly through short final-drive gear­ing to provide terrific thrust. The Legacy bolts away from the pack up to about 60 mph. As speed builds, this lit­tle motor begins to pant pretty hard, however, and just past the quarter-mile, the Camry and Passat power past it. And that performance has its costs—the Legacy managed only 18 mpg over our 700-mile trip.

A few testers commented on the spongy feel of the Legacy’s brake pedal, but by and large, the entries were glowing. “This is the Eagle Talon TSi of the bunch,” raved one. “I prefer the compact feel of this smaller wagon on winding roads,” said another.

Alas, as a wagon, the Legacy comes up somewhat short. Back-seat comfort suffers from a lack of head and shoulder room. The cargo area, while relatively large, is not as useful as some others. The rear seats don’t fold flat, there are no tie-down hooks, and there isn’t much concealed storage space. The small luggage rack lacks mounting hardware for aftermarket rack accessories.

The Legacy Touring wagon comes very well equipped, with a glass sunroof, a CD player, and power every­thing. But it feels like a less substantial car than its com­petitors, due to abundant body flex and a rather cheap-sound­ing engine. And even though it has a driver’s airbag, the Legacy still has motorized seat­belts—an absolute no-buy for many of us.

Several of our complaints will likely be resolved in the new-for-’95 Legacy due later this year. In the meantime, despite its eagerness to play, the Legacy’s aversion to work restricted it to fourth place.

1994 Subaru Legacy Touring
160-hp flat-4, 4-speed automatic, 3240 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,645/$23,778
Passenger volume, behind F/R: 50/40 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 36/71 ft3
60 mph: 8.2 sec
1/4-mile: 16.4 sec @ 82 mph
100 mph: 27.6 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 185 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 18 mpg

3rd Place: Honda Accord EX

The Accord wagon was unanimously awarded the honor of “most sedan-like wagon,” thanks in large part to a cargo box that adds only 90 pounds and pre­serves the superb handling dynamics of Honda’s sophisticated control-arm and multilink suspension. Unfortunately, cargo space is similarly sedan-like. The wagon’s short rear overhang and stylish but steeply raked back window give it between 8 and 15 fewer cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat than any of the gathered competitors have.

HIGHS: Superb driving position, slick and precise mechanicals.
LOWS: Lacks power, cargo space, and
joie de vivre.
VERDICT: The most sedan-like wagon.

Our Accord was the only wagon in this train without some type of luggage rack. Honda offers a dealer-installed unit similar in style and function to the Sable’s rack, priced at $499. Also available are an enclosed luggage basket, a bike rack, and a ski rack; all can be mounted on the lug­gage rack. We strongly recommend the rack and basket for anyone contemplating a cross-country jaunt with a family of four. What the Accord’s interior lacks in quantity, it makes up for in typical Honda quality. Drivers of all sizes praised the superb seating position, control relationships, and visibility out of the cockpit. “All the buttons and knobs are nicely placed and easy to reach and understand,” one of us noted.

Up in the Hocking Hills, the Accord never threatened to wag its wagon tail, even at the limits of adhesion. But those limits are relatively modest, as noted by a native Ohioan editor: “Great steering on the twisty stuff, very composed at nine­-tenths, but could use more aggressive tires.”

The Accord could also use some aggression therapy in the engine room, as its smooth-running 2.2-liter VTEC four­-cylinder was the smallest and least torquey motor of the bunch. A 3186-pound curb weight and short gearing kept the Honda running with the pack from 0 to 60. Otherwise, the Accord goes about its busi­ness with a mild-mannered meekness that may help it inherit the earth but earned it only a third-place finish.

1994 Honda Accord EX
145-hp inline-4, 4-speed automatic, 3186 lb
Base/as-tested price: $21,850/$21,937
Passenger volume, behind F/R: 53/39 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 26/68 ft3
60 mph: 9.6 sec
1/4-mile: 17.4 sec @ 80 mph
100 mph: 34.8 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

2nd Place: Toyota Camry LE

Remember the smarmy goody-two-shoes kid in class that always did everything right? In this class, the Camry is that kid.

It will carry virtually anything the Sable can, including a couple of ankle-biters facing back­ward in the back. The Camry’s optional $315 rear-facing third seat offers slightly less head and leg room than the Sable’s, but the underdeck storage still justifies the option. Passengers in the Camry’s third seat get shoulder belts and an inside latch (with a child-protection lock) to let them­selves out. Toyota provides the longest and best-equipped luggage rack for bolting or lashing on skis, boats, and gear.

HIGHS: Best engine, best passenger space, best build quality.
LOWS: No-thanks styling, isolated and unengaging as a driver’s car.
VERDICT: In purely quantitative terms, this one would win.

Even at the track, the Camry is a Dudley Doright. With the most pow­erful engine of the group, it turned in the best quarter-mile (16.4 sec­onds at 85 mph), the highest top speed (126 mph), the best brak­ing from 70 mph (174 feet), and it tied for the best skidpad grip (0.78 g). But perhaps because of the smug, silent, and isolated way the Camry generates these numbers, the driver doesn’t seem to enjoy generating them here as much as in some other cars.

Out on the road, most editors agreed with this comment: “This car feels as good pushed to high limits as it does in the 7-Eleven lot—classy.” But they also agreed with the observation that “the homely styling and interior trim and the dull steer­ing remove most of what you could call sportiness—I prefer the VW in the hills.”

And so it went with the voting. The valedictorian didn’t win the popularity contest. The Camry excels at all the right­-brain activities, but it kind of lets the left brain atrophy.

1994 Toyota Camry LE
188-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3505 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,303/$25,398
Passenger volume, behind F/R/3rd: 56/44/23 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 41/75 ft3
60 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4-mile: 16.4 sec @ 85 mph
100 mph: 24.2 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 174 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

1st Place: Volkswagen Passat GLX

Sometimes the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts, and that’s the secret of this Passat. Simply put, this one pushed all our buttons. VW revised this year’s Passat significantly and fixed our biggest gripe by fitting airbags and adjustable shoulder belts with auto­matic pretensioning in place of the long-dreaded motor-mouse belts. The driver’s bag lives in an attractive new four-spoke steering wheel. The passenger bag occupies what was the glove compart­ment, leaving little storage space up front.

The Passat’s taut Euro­pean suspension traverses North Ameri­can potholes and expansion joints more comfortably this year, thanks to new Goodyear Eagle GA tires. And new structural adhesives have beefed up body rigid­ity by 15 percent and reduced road noise substantially.

HIGHS: Ardent chassis, remarkable space efficiency, superb cockpit.
LOWS: Useless luggage rack, substantial price.
VERDICT: The wagon that best appeals to all the senses.

Finally, the controversial square pug nose of old has been freshened with a new grille and wraparound headlamps that present kind of a smug grin to the wind.

Similar grins appeared on the faces of the editors after a short time behind that new airbag wheel. The Passat’s 172-horse VR6 does not generate class-leading num­bers, but it makes classy noises and keeps this tight nimble wagon ahead of the pack in the cut and thrust.

With 0.78 g of grip and excellent roll control, the Passat was the quickest and smoothest car through both the mea­sured lane-change maneuver and the Ohio chicanes. “Doesn’t feel bulky. Great steering response and plenty of passing power,” said one tester. “Trans­mission snaps off downshifts like salutes,” noted another.

Headroom and legroom abound both front and rear, and the seats are firm, well-shaped, and supportive. As in the Diamante, the rear seatbacks are adjustable. The Passat’s cargo bay is square and useful in shape, but just aver­age in size. Its “luggage rack” is just for show—accessory crossbars and lug­gage baskets are required to carry any­thing outside, and the rails create wind noise right next to the sunroof.

In the end, our right brains were sat­isfied with the Passat in hard, cold, objective terms, and our left brains were smitten with its character and personal­ity. Hence, it wins by a nose.

1994 Volkswagen Passat GLX
172-hp V-6, 4-speed automatic, 3266 lb
Base/as-tested price: $23,890/$24,765
Passenger volume, behind F/R: 54/43 ft3
Cargo volume, seats up/folded: 34/69 ft3
60 mph: 9.5 sec
1/4-mile: 17.2 sec @ 83 mph
100 mph: 27.0 sec
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 178 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Conclusions? Unless your child­hood wagon memories are of a Chevy II, a Plymouth Valiant, or a Rambler American, these wagons are going to seem small. On a trip, a family of five or more will have to pack light, and three people sitting across any of these back seats will wish they were in a minivan.

Food and gear for four people on a month-long cross-country trip fit easily in the back of the Markus family wagon (a ’69 Chevy Townsman) with nothing on the roof and room for a person to sleep in the cargo area. Today that kind of travel definitely requires a mini (or maxi) van.

But many families of four would never dream of taking such extended vacations. They need not view the mini­van as a fundamental element of the family plan. Any of these six wagons, when equipped with a decent luggage rack, will carry a family of four to Dis­ney and tote shrubs and lumber with aplomb.

If you need the space and carrying capacity, by all means look at a mini­van. But if you treasure driving plea­sure, you should definitely see if one of these moderately sized wagons can meet your needs. Your left brain will surely appreciate it.

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