In the absolutely superb 1949 war film Twelve O’Clock High, a doctor stationed at a U.S. Army Air Force base in WW2 England uses an interesting comparison when describing a character’s mental breakdown.
“Have you ever seen a light bulb burn out? How bright the filament gets right before it breaks?”
A similar phenomenon could be at work in a certain vehicle niche, one which gets more press than actual sales warrant. The lowly, reviled, and suddenly revered station wagon, now referred to in terms meant to dispel the stodgy family hauler image of decades past.
Never mind that BMW just announced its 3 Series wagon won’t make a return trip from Europe. There’s wagons aplenty these days, and it’s this writer’s firm belief that you’ll never have a better change to bring home a competent non-light truck cargo hauler. It’s now or never.
While wagon variants allow automakers to rack up additional sales of a given nameplate, the wagon community remains a small one. Loyal and passionate, but small. And what room there is for growth depends on your level of optimism. As Bloomberg notes, 2018 was a great year for wagon sales, simply because consumers suddenly found themselves with choice.
Buick has the new Regal TourX, Jaguar has the new XF Sportbrake, Volvo has the tony V90 and V60, Mercedes-Benz has the dignified E 450 4Matic wagon and disgruntled AMG E63 S wagon, Audi has the A4 Allroad, and Volkswagen will still gladly sell you a modest Golf SportWagen. All of this choice resulted in a bigger niche than years past. Some 212,000 wagons left U.S. dealer lots in 2018, representing a 29 percent sales increase compared to five years earlier.
Still, wagons amounted to less than 2 percent of the new vehicle market last year. That’s plug-in car territory.
This group of buyers, described by Buick marketing director Sam Russell as “almost violently opposed to being mainstream,” doesn’t want to be seen driving an anonymous crossover. And let’s face it, it’s easier to sculpt a sexy wagon than a high-riding, bulbous crossover. Thing is, though, wagons sales are a slim wedge of the overall volume of a particular nameplate. As sedan sales falter, wagons, despite their snob appeal, won’t pick up enough of the slack. All a wagon can do is delay a model’s discontinuation, if we’re to assume today’s market shift continues uninterrupted.
If sedans disappear from our streets, so too will wagons, despite wagons being a happy middle ground between sedans and crossovers. A sad situation, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. While Bloomberg reports Buick’s TourX sales “increased steadily” over the past 12 months, Volvo’s gorgeous V90 is now available by custom order only, and Jaguar’s XF Sportbrake, while sultry, has to contend with the fact that no one’s interested in buying Jaguar cars these days. Even the brand’s crossovers can’t keep sales in the black.
Despite the recent uptick in wagon interest and availability, it’s hard not to see this phenomenon as a tired light bulb valiantly burning its way towards destruction.