Sales of station wagons, the humble family haulers, are down, but times are a-changing.
Take the 2017 Audi A4 Allroad, the little black dress of wagons. Arriving at dealerships this month, it can be dressed up or dressed down to exquisite effect. Sleek yet sturdy, the wagon wouldn’t look out of place at the entrance to a Beverly Hills bistro or chic ski chalet. Take it off-road, and it’s in its natural element.
Earlier this month, I took the wagon on a daylong jaunt around Jackson, Wyoming. We set out hours after the first snowfall of the season, granting us the chance to test the wagon through rain, sleet, mud, and icy mountain passes. The A4 Allroad handled the conditions with aplomb and handled nimbly around the cattle, deer, and moose of the Tetons.
The car arrives during a dismal time for station wagon sales, as consumers clamor for crossovers. For the first nine months of the year, sales of BMW’s 3-Series wagon fell 35%, while the Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon, which is on the cusp of a redesign, saw sales fall 29%.
“Wagons have been a tough sell for decades, and now they are going up against the growing popularity of SUVs,” said Karl Brauer, senior director at Kelley Blue Book. “I know the Europeans keep fighting the good fight, with Volvo even bringing over its new V90, but that segment is facing more resistance than ever, and it was already facing a lot.”
Station wagons that look more like crossovers, with higher ground clearance and SUV-like cladding on the bumpers and wheel arches, seem to be faring better, according to Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at automotive research firm AutoPacific.
AutoPacific expects wagon market share to increase with the arrival of the A4 Allroad, Volkswagen’s new Golf AllTrack, and Volvo’s forthcoming V90 Cross Country.
“Given the simple fact that Americans like SUV imagery in their vehicles, it is no surprise that wagons with SUV flavor are more popular than wagons that simply look like road cars,” Kim said.
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Compared to the A4 sedan, the A4 Allroad increases ground clearance by 34 millimeters and cargo space by 16%. The agile, 252-horsepower wagon owes its performance chops to a system Audi calls Quattro with Ultra Tech, which reverts to front-wheel drive when the system deems all-wheel drive unnecessary. Quattro with Ultra Tech is also available on the Audi Q5 midsize crossover.
The model I tested was loaded with safety features, including functions for turn assist, which prevents the driver from making risky left-hand turns, and vehicle exit, which helps ensure no one swings the car door open and takes out a biker. Smartphone connectivity and wi-fi are standard; the built-in hotspot can handle up to eight devices.
As you may have guessed, the main drawback is the price tag. The wagon starts at $44,000 and tops out at $51,400 for the fully loaded prestige trim, which includes navigation and adaptive cruise control.
Still, that may not dissuade diehard fans of the station wagon, a niche vehicle with a loyal following, said Audi A4 Allroad product manager Anthony Garbis. “People who buy wagons want wagons.”