Dude – Where’s my car?

By Kevin Miller

I can’t find the car I want anywhere.  At least, not anywhere here in the US. I’ve long been a driver of useful, involving cars – the kind of cars with which I felt a bond, as owning each of them made life somehow more enjoyable. My two black Saab 900 hatchbacks (a 1995 for 8 years/160k miles, and a 1992 project car) both were a lot more fun to drive than they should have been as naturally-aspirated, front-wheel-drive three-doors;  both had that certain Saab style that I somehow identified with. Too, my 2004 Volvo V70R was a useful family hauler, with all-wheel drive and a manual transmission to get me most anywhere and have fun doing it. I truly bonded with each of those stylish Swedes. Only when the monthly repairs on the Volvo approached the amount of my home mortgage did begrudgingly decide that it was time for the Volvo to go.

When it was time to replace the V70R earlier this year, I looked and looked, but couldn’t find a suitable replacement. Family-sized, AWD (or even two-wheel drive) wagons with manual transmissions have stopped washing up on the shores of the good old USA, replaced instead by automatic-transmission crossovers and sedans. Even with a price ceiling around $50k, there aren’t any wagons offered that meet my needs. Volvo stopped selling wagons (the XC70 on a raised suspension doesn’t count in my mind) and only offers manual transmission in the C30/C70 range. Volkswagen stopped selling a wagon version with its new-generation Passat, instead focusing on crossovers like the Tiguan, leaving the not-quite-big-enough Jetta wagon. Subaru stopped offering a Legacy wagon, offering only the Outback. Audi’s A4 is only offered as a wagon with automatic transmission, and the Audi A6 wagon isn’t being imported. BMW’s 3-series wagon is not quite big enough, and the 5-series wagon isn’t being imported anymore. Mercedes’ E-class was never recently offered in manual transmission, and costs nearly $60k. Cadillac offers the CTS in a wagon, but the only manual transmission is found in the ultra-high-performance (and high-cost) CTS-V. Saab’s 9-3 wagon isn’t quite family sized, and the new 9-5 wagon will have only an automatic transmission in the US, that is, if it ever sees production. Domestic brands don’t offer wagons at all. Acura’s TSX wagon is marginal on size but offers no manual transmission; Hyundai’s Elantra Touring is outclassed and outsized in my shopping list. The Ford Focus five-door is almost a wagon, though it is no bigger than the Volkswagen Jetta, and only lower-trim-level Foci offer a manual transmission.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to chat with James Hope, Product Communications Manager for Volvo. At the time I still owned my V70R, and was lamenting Volvo’s decision to not offer the stylish V60 wagon in the US at all, and not to offer the capable S60 in any trim level with a manual transmission. Mr. Hope responded by telling me that I am not a typical American car buyer- that I’m a European car buyer. While I took that as a compliment, I’m not sure it was meant as one. Unfortunately for buyers like me, it doesn’t make sense to sell the manual-transmission wagons in the US that I want to drive, because not enough other Americans want to drive them to justify the cost of federalizing them for sale in the US. When I told him that that type of attitude would lose Volvo enthusiast drivers to other brands, he agreed that it might happen and that it was unfortunate, but explained that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend big money to sell a few cars to the fraction-of-a-percent of Volvo buyers who are enthusiasts like me.

Almost every automaker is offering one or more vehicles they consider a sport sedan, though really they’re just fast luxury (or near-luxury) cars. With their automatic transmissions and ~300 HP motors, sedans like the Volvo S60 (T6 AWD), Saab 9-5 Aero, Audi A6, and BMW 535i are all quick, capable point-and-shoot cars, but they lack the involvement and connection to the driver I crave. Even the 535i Sedan, which I drove with a manual transmission, felt bulky and detached rather than lithe and connected. It’s a disappointment that these cars have lost their connection to the driver in their march onward and upward in size and price.

We did sell my V70R, but didn’t end up replacing it with another sport wagon, only because we couldn’t find any for sale. Having driven and rejected a bunch of vehicles, we went in quite a different direction. My Volvo’s replacement ended up being a 2011 Ford Flex Limited EcoBoost, the one we’re tracking as a long-term tester here at Autosavant. My wife is the daily driver of the Flex; I inherited her ten-year-old Saab 9-5 sedan- at least it has a manual transmission.

It is a well-known fact in the industry that auto enthusiasts are among the biggest wagon supporters in the marketplace; their numbers are certainly disproportionate to the size of their purchasing population. Unfortunately, buyers vote with their pocketbooks, and not enough voted for wagons in the recent past, which means that wagons are essentially disapearing from the US marketplace. As mainstream and sporty cars stop offering wagon variants, buyers looking for vehicles with the utility of a wagon are forced to step up crossover type vehicles, losing the handling benefits (and efficiency) of a sedan-based vehicle in the process.  I, for one, hope that the trend reverses itself by the time our household is ready to buy our next car, so that I can get the driving dynamics I want packaged with the utility my family needs.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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7 Comments

  1. I can shift pretty well for myself (literally and figuratively), but the six-speed automatic boxes are very good these days. And the seven-speed and eight-speed automatic transmissions are just as good, and, have more gears, which means better performance and better fuel economy than a six-speed.

    Is the tactile sensation afforded to you by rowing through the gears that important to you that you would simply pass on a car that otherwise suits your needs?

    Your logic would have been sound when there were three-speed automatic transmissions and five-speed manuals – yeah, that’s a stark choice, and I would have picked the manual, too. Same goes for a four-speed automatic and a six-speed manual. But now the amount of gears is equal.

    Except, of course, that the U.S., and the situation of the past is reversed among some models in Europe – you can get either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic transmission in some cars. Are you telling me you would forfeit two gears just to have the physical action of changing gears available to you if you were in Europe?

    That seems a bit counter-intuitive to me.

  2. A big part of it really is the tactile sensation- in most cases I feel more connected to the car when I get to do the shifting myself.

    Jaguar’s XF and XJ Supercharged, and the BMW Alpina B7 are cars whose automatic powertrains have felt involving enough (with precise, immediate shifts). The automatic transmisions in less-expensive cars (like the 6-speed autos in the Volvo S60 T6 AWD and the Ford Flex Ecoboost) have not.

    I would be likely to select a 6-cog manual transmission over an 8-ratio automaic just for the pleasure of the drive, depending the driving experience. Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, but it’s my personal preference.

  3. I agree (except I’m a wimp who can’t drive a stick) but when looking, I ended up in a Toyota Venza, the closest thing I could find. We all need an appliance sometimes.

  4. Dude! You would give up two gears just to have a manual? What about the future ten-speed automatics? Would you give up four gears? What about an EV? They don’t have gears. Is a great-looking, high performance EV just completely out for you since it doesn’t have a gearshift?

  5. Obviously any choice will depend on the car and how it drives. Given the choices in today’s marketplace, I would choose a manual transmission in most cases, as most automakers’ automatics still aren’t as engaging as driving a manual- the automatics in Jaguar XJ and XF, and in the BMW Alpina B7, have been notable exceptions.

    Still, the family-size, sedan-based wagon form factor is missing from the US market, whether in automatic or manual tranmission. A honest, sedan-based wagon with its inherently lower center of gravity has a much better chance of being a fun-to-drive family vehicle than a crossover, while providing a lot more utility than a sedan.

  6. I currently own a 2004 A6 (C5) Avant 3.0L Quattro. It has been a great vehicle on many levels. However, I an mow in year 8 of ownership, and the last year of my extended warranty.

    I was devastated when the new Audi A6 (C7) was announced for North America in 2011 that there “were no plans to import the Avant (wagon). I had planned to replace my C5 A6 Avant with a 2013 or 2014 (C7) A6 Avant.

    My criteria for my next car was:
    – European-design and built
    – 6 cylinder engine
    – All-wheel drive

    As of today, I am down to only two choices:
    – Volvo XC/70
    – Mercedes E Class

    I really do not like the body cladding or raised ride of the XC/70. I would really prefer a V70, especially with the “R” package.

    That leaves the Mercedes E Class. I am not a fan of Mercedes and I just cannot get excited about this vehicle.

    I had been looking forward to the new Saab 9-5 Sport-Combi (wagon). I like the design of the new Saab and I was excited about the wagon. However, Saab plans to only import the new 9-5 Sport-Combi with a 4 cylinder Turbo and not the V6. I am not willing to spend $50K+ for a full size vehicle with a 4 cylinder engine.

    I really wish that I had an viable option my next vehicle. However, I still like the appearance and performance of my 204 Audi. I am also fortunate to have a competent AND reasonable mechanic that specializes in European cars.

  7. QQ: I see quite few people here in Europe privately importing cars from the US, what is it that makes it so difficult to do it the other way round? Parts are no longer a prob through the likes of E-Bay, and if you have something that resembles the sedan close enough (say the A6, or the 5 series) this ought not to be such a big deal either?

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