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Nashville Scene Estates Divided

Are we approaching a station wagon renaissance?

By Marc Stengel

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Ford Motor Company is selling all of the Excursion maxi-SUVs it can build (at a pace of some 60,000 per year under current production arrangements). Only days later, WSJ disclosed that monster-SUV dealers in general and Ford guys in particular are lamenting the unsold inventory piling up on their lots. Ford dealers reportedly had 76 days' oversupply of the Excursion in January, up from 48 days' worth in December.

So what gives? And why should this particular inventory-control conundrum serve to introduce a review of two new station wagons, of all outmoded things? Could it possibly be that a certain stealth-consumerist virus is starting to run rampant amongst the auto-buying public? Are there hints of concern that fuel-thirsty SUVs, with their profit-bloated prices, might fare poorly in comparison to formerly forlorn, recently ascendant station wagons? Both of these categories of vehicle, after all, are dedicated to hauling people and carting cargo under the same overarching roof. Now that minivans are securely scapegoated as the lackluster carpooler of choice, perhaps now is the perfect time for a station wagon renaissance, replete with enough status-enhancing, performance-indulging image cues to hit the brutish SUVs squarely below the belt.

BMW 528iA Sport Wagon

Time was--and not so long ago, either--when BMW's classic wagon was the uncelebrated hack of the company's vehicle stable. Except for a few deluded Europhiles who daydreamed about the provinces while negotiating Yankee gridlock in their snooty "estate wagons," the majority of today's middle-age car-buyers have been too plagued with post-traumatic memories of their Dads' "Woodie" wagons ever to consider buying a version of their own. Nevertheless, to a follow-on generation weaned for the road within the sliding door panels of a minivan, the bulbous, asymmetrical silhouette of a four-door wagon is newly exotic and strange.

BMW's sport wagon is precisely that: a stiff-chassied bahn-burner with feline handling and razor-sharp cornering instincts. If the inherent seduction of hitting the upper reaches of allowable speeds weren't forbidding enough, the base price for this straight-six-powered "baby" of Bimmer wagons is more daunting yet: $40,700. The price may be virtually the same as last year's, but this good news is swiftly dashed by the à la carte list: a Sport Premium package (with self-leveling sport suspension, 17-inch wheels, and convenience/ appearance doodads) for $4,950; auto transmission (with Steptronic manual-shift mode) for $975; and GPS navigation for $1,990. After destination charges, the as-tested total reaches $49,185.

For an enthusiast, it's easy to see, hear, and feel why this self-proclaimed "ultimate driving machine" costs $50-grand. There is this ineffable knack BMW has for harmonizing the technical and, well, the spiritual elements of vehicle design into a most exhilarating gestalt. After all, this is a car whose 2.8-liter straight-six only makes 193 horsepower/206 ft.-lbs. of torque; and yet it's capable of slip-streaming into the wind like a jet fighter--all the while lugging sacks of designer groceries and a quartet of private-school kids.

True, the 528 wagon's handling poise and safety engineering (including stability control and side/front/head airbags) are plenty enough to trump the typical truck in any given credentials contest. But it's not hard to imagine that something a bit more hormonal is behind the current fashion re-revolution in sport wagons of this BMW's caliber. Mostly, it all seems to be about, "Look what I've got--and you don't have one." Yet.

Mercury Sable LS Premium Wagon

So, wouldn't you just know that the Mercury Division--which cemented into our imagination the image of its classic Grand Marquis wagon with woodside trim--has never been without a station wagon in its lineup for, lo, these many long decades? But lately the wagon marketers at Mercury and its parent Ford have more or less kept their corporate heads below the edge of the foxhole. Now--wouldn't you know?--the Euros are making an enticing case that the wagon is back, properly positioned as a sports wagon, of course. So Mercury reasonably figures, "Heck, why not?"

Armed with a time-tested squareback (or at least oval-back) model based on the Sable sedan, Mercury's wagon entry doesn't quite muster up to a sporty designation; so they've called it a Premium Wagon. Clearly no match for either the road manners or the social karma of BMW's sport wagon, the Sable wagon nevertheless has a few attractive charms of its own. For one thing, you can load up its base price of $22,240 with a full raft of options--including moonroof, CD stereo, side airbags, power convenience, ABS brakes, and traction control--and still come in under $26,500 after destination charges. Mercury's Premium Wagon features a 3.0-liter twin-cam V6 that nominally out-powers the Bimmer, 200 HP to 193 HP, although the Mercury's front-drive powertrain dissipates any potential for exploiting the added thrill. The best feature is a flip-fold center console that creates twin front sport buckets when deployed; when folded away, it yields a three-passenger front bench that turns this wagon into a genuine six-seater.

No, this Mercury Sable LS wagon is most assuredly not a status buy like BMW's "estate wagon." But neither is it an overweight, over-thirsty, overbearing truck, even though it carries more people and almost as much cargo as a Tahoe or Expedition SUV costing easily $12-grand more. What this Sable wagon may be, it's interesting to consider, is a persevering emblem of sanity in an otherwise nutty family car market.

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