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Lowly Station Wagon Hits Comeback Trail

Has-beens no longer, wagons like Outback sport rugged new image.

Sedans and coupes? Pass.

Sport-utility vehicles read like yesterday's news, and minivans are headed for the off-ramp.

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But load up the kids and the groceries. Station wagons are hap'nin'.

Just count the Subaru Outbacks you see on your next trip to the mall.

Subaru and other manufacturers are turning yesterday's faux-wood Country Squires into sporty, up-market vehicles.

The new "wags," many sporting all-wheel-drive, look poised to outrun sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) as drivers search for something just as flashy but more practical.

"They're looking for something that's easier to drive and easier to park," says Automobile Magazine founding editor David E. Davis Jr.

He says SUV sales "have probably peaked and will fall back to their more natural levels" in a few years.

To some of the original SUV fans, the vehicles have traded in their tough, off-roader image to join minivans in the "mom-mobile" category.

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Still, buyers hooked on the foul-weather, curb-hopping performance of SUVs want much of the same in their next car, and they're finding it in the new breed of station wagons.

"The hot segment in the next couple of years is going to be the all-wheel-drive four-door station wagon," Keith Crain, publisher of the trade journal Automotive News, wrote in a March 23 editorial. "The segment is going to grow like wildfire as more car companies offer versions of those vehicles."

So far, Subaru leads the way.

The company's small, four-wheel-drive (now all-wheel-drive) wagons have had a loyal following for more than 20 years.

Now Subaru has staked its survival on the Outback "sport-utility wagon," a jacked-up station wagon with gentle off-road capability.

Other automakers are ready to follow Subaru's tracks (see story, below).

Truck-meister Ford, however, is unconvinced that station wagons will overtake the trend in SUVs.

"These products are all being offered by companies that don't have sport-utilities," says George Pipas, manager of sales analysis at Ford.

He argues that a larger trend toward more versatile vehicles will flatten any station wagon reemergence. What consumers want most in the 1990s is a car that does everything, Mr. Pipas says, "because of Americans' very, very active lifestyles."

And they're willing to pay for it.

That's why they've been snapping up SUVs for 15 years and why those vehicles get pricier and more luxurious every year.

So as suburban sport-utility owners tire of the rough ride, mundane handling, and poor fuel economy, manufacturers are scrambling to market SUVs as "carlike."

That's where wagons are a step ahead. "They offer just enough sport-utility capability without being trucky," says Mr. Davis of Automobile Magazine.

Wagons such as the Subaru Legacy and Volvo V70 have as much interior room as mid-size SUVs. And while Volvo, Audi, and BMW wagons are expensive, a big, well-trimmed, sport-utility costs just as much.

Moreover, wagons promise better gas mileage and potentially lower insurance bills.

Some 20 percent of Volvo all-wheel-drive buyers are trading out of SUVs, says Volvo spokesman Dan Johnston.

Image plays a big role, too.

Station wagons have never been known as "cool" cars. People bought them to haul the kids, groceries, and gear that sedans left behind on the curb. If you didn't have that kind of suburban baggage, you probably didn't own a wagon.

They developed the image of bland, family cars. So buyers fled them first for minivans that were bigger and more contemporary; then for SUVs that offered a more active, hipper image.

By last year, all the major US nameplates except Ford had abandoned wagons. The rest of the market went to Saturn and importers looking for fringe niches: Volvo, Toyota, Audi, and Volkswagen.

Ford, with its Taurus wagon, and Subaru, virtually owned the market for family wagons.

But now that minivan sales have plateaued, and a flotilla of SUVs that never go off road has dulled their rugged image, station wagons are gaining status as a socially conscious alternative.

Subaru marketing director Tim Mahoney sums it up this way: "People didn't want to drive what their parents did. Now the whole generation that grew up on minivans may find that their moms and dads weren't so crazy after all."

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