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 |   |  The Past, Present and Future of the Sport Wagon - Wagon Train
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The Past, Present and Future of the Sport Wagon - Wagon Train

Colin Ryan
Sep 14, 2010

There's been a steady europeanization of the American automotive scene. Just look at the new Ford Fiesta, a subcompact that has wowed the Old World and made it across the Atlantic with most of its mojo intact. Or the fact that the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz continue to post record U.S. sales, even in an economy more familiar with the word "crapper" than many before it. So might it be time to bring that great European car style-the sport wagon-back in from the cold? It's too good to be ignored by the many and only embraced by a contrarian few. With a killer combination of exhilarating performance and handy practicality, it really is a modern-day conundrum why American drivers find it so hard to get into a sport wagon. The case in favor starts here.

Volvo 1800 ES
The P1800 Coupe, from which the 1800 ES is derived, is undeniably pretty and arguably the most beautiful car Volvo has ever produced. Good bones, then, forming a foundation for the three-door version that came out in 1972. That rear door was a frameless, all-glass item that revealed a highly usable cargo space. The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine only developed 125 hp, but that didn't matter when the rest of the package was so cool in that Scandinavian way. Today, tidy examples are rare and collectible, because only 8,000 or thereabouts were made. Pity. It's probably not possible to determine exactly who invented the sport wagon, but if Volvo staked a claim, it might be wise not to dispute it.

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Volvo V50 T5
Glory be, the V50 T5 is currently on sale in the U.S. for $33,050. It has a 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder engine with a turbocharger making 227 hp. Not that hard to do, but at least its 236 lb-ft of torque comes on song as low as 1500 rpm, and the drive goes to all four wheels. So that's a pleasant amount of low-end push with more than enough traction to exploit it, with or without a substantial piece of antique furniture in the back. Having a turbo means some potential for upping the boost and getting more power out of it, and the V50 is smaller than the V70, yet still exceptionally convenient.

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Audi RS 6 Avant
Oh, for goodness sake, what's so bad about a 580-hp, 5.0-liter twin-turbo V10 (we say again, a V10; again, 580 hp) in a handsome, useful package that makes it not worthwhile for Audi to import it to the States? Zero to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds, a tenth quicker than a Porsche 911 Carrera (997); top speed 180 mph; all-wheel drive plus a pugnacious 480 lb-ft of torque, tempered by optional carbon-ceramic brakes, equals fun for all the family. Shame that a 2010 RS 6 Avant would cost around $150,000, but did we mention it has a V10? Imagine how good that would sound in the canyons.

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Audi RS2
Granted, the RS2 has been mentioned once or twice on the preceding pages, but when something is this good, a little revisiting is no bad thing. An Audi 80 Avant gone wild, what the RS2 represented was a raising of the game. By getting Porsche on board, it really emphasized the sport side of the equation and gave Audi some serious enthusiast credibility at a time when the warm glow of the Ur-Quattro was fading somewhat. It also saw the first use of an RS badge on an Audi and even though 315 hp from a 2.2-liter five-cylinder turbocharged engine sounds a little tame these days, hitting 60 mph from standstill in 4.8 seconds still seems rather delicious.

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Jaguar XF Wagon
Assuming the Mayans are wrong about the end of the world and we get to see the other side of 2012, we will also see a mid-life revamp of the Jaguar XF. Those in the know (about Jaguar, not Mayans) are predicting that it will get a grille inspired by the XJ. (Funny, wasn't the XJ's look inspired by the XF? Car designers are a tricky bunch.) And word has it that a new model will then join the ranks. Yes, a wagon version. And given that there's a 470-hp supercharged V8 version of the sedan, logic suggests the same option for the 2013 five-door. There is a precedent for trunkless Jags. Back in the 1970s and through the '80s, a British coachbuilder called Lynx made an XJS estate/shooting brake affair, which it dubbed the Eventer (to appeal to the well-heeled horsey crowd). Even though it looked a little awkward, the design did away with those flying buttress pillars that usually impeded rearward visibility. Unfortunately, build quality was of a similar poor standard as most other British automotive products of the time.

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Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon
This segment isn't all about Germanic efficiency; a generous helping of Italian flair is always welcome. In fairness, one of the sportiest things about this wagon is its name, just because no car maker likes to use the term "estate" or the W word without some extra juice. Nevertheless, this 159 makes any autostrada seem a little more graceful, and when it deploys one of Alfa's exceptionally good JTD turbodiesels, it offers a mix of style, sense, and desirability rarely found elsewhere. The 2.4-liter JTDM five-cylinder example makes 210 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, probably enough to topple the Leaning Tower of Pisa once and for all. But that would be a bad thing.

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VW Jetta SportWagen TDI
Taking the sport wagon concept literally is fine when the result comes out like this. Similar to the Alfa in some respects, this Jetta is not overly sporty, but with the TDI engine under its hood, there's a satisfying thrust and a satisfactory thirst. We've enjoyed this car so much; when there's a slick-shifting DSG transmission, 236 lb-ft of torque, and 41 mpg coexisting in the same machine, it's easy to see why. This car is one reason why European machines are seducing American buyers these days: It's affordable to buy and run, offers decent equipment levels and space, and has just a little bit of chic thrown in. For added eco-friendliness (unusual in something even vaguely sporty), the TDI engine has won two Green Car of the Year awards.

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Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG Wagon
As amazing as the RS 6 Avant and M5 Touring are, this is the ultimate sport wagon. At least until the next ultimate sport wagon comes along. Even then, it would be hard to argue with 525 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque coming from a 6.3-liter V8, a seven-speed gearbox, optional ceramic composite brakes that can almost stop time, 200 mph with the limiter disabled, and a generous 68.9 cubic feet of cargo space. By reaching 60 mph from standstill in just 4.4 seconds (extrapolating that figure from hitting 62 mph, or 100 km/h, in 4.6 seconds), this thing is fast-arguably the fastest sport wagon in the world by this metric. Note that the claimed time for the two-seater SL 63 AMG is 4.5 seconds. The automatic transmission has one mode called "Controlled Efficiency" and also a launch control, which is just plain adorable. And because this is a wagon, there's an air suspension at the rear that ensures a constant and consistent ride height regardless of load. Available in the USA? Please sign our petition.

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Reliant Scimitar GTE
This strange British car (from a company more known for making dodgy three-wheelers) might better be described as a shooting brake, but it did share two primary attributes with sport wagons: a tailgate and a reputation for speed. So semantics be damned. Anyway, the E stood for estate (English for wagon) and there was a low-volume GTC convertible. The design came from an estate car the company made for the Turkish market. The GTE lived from 1968 to 1986, with not many changes. The front suspension came from a Triumph TR6. Despite a lightweight fiberglass body, its Ford-sourced 2.5-liter or 3.0-liter (depending on the year) V6 still chugged petrol like the cast of Mad Men down Scotch. Not that such a predilection bothered British royalty-Princess Anne received her first GTE as a 20th birthday present and she went on to own eight more. The police caught her speeding in one, not a rare transgression for her.

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BMW M5 Touring
With the 5 Series now in its F10 generation, there should be an M sedan coming in 2011 (excitingly, BMW is said to be working on extensive weight-saving measures). Whether a Touring variation of that ever sees the light of day is still firmly in the realm of conjecture. Chances of an M GT might be better. So the previous E61 M5 Touring (not available in North America, naturally) joins the E34 version as another under-appreciated rare bird and the only M-fettled 5 wagons to date. Ten cylinders making 500 hp and 384 lb-ft make a superb asset to an already fine and functional car. Which leads one to assume that the pose value of a sport sedan far outweighs the convenience value of a sport wagon, while an X6 M (admittedly, an absolute hoot) is flavor of the month. Shouldn't we be over all that nonsense by now?

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By Colin Ryan
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