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.