The thing is, back then this actually mattered; being seen in the right wagon carried serious prestige. And our lowly Fairmont was not the right wagon. I'd drool with envy whenever my friend arrived at school stretched out in the third row of his mom's Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, a wheeled plesiosaur so extravagant it had an actual-size photograph of a redwood tree glued to each flank, a windowed roof dome lifted from an Amtrak observation car, and so many power conveniences the driver's door had a mail slot for receiving electric bills. Someday, I vowed, I'd be Vista Cruising, too.
Then, like "Miami Vice" pastels and Michael Dukakis, wagons disappeared. From roughly one million wagons sold in 1980, U.S. sales plummeted to just 400,000 units in 1990 and a mere 120,000 last year. A host of worthy models have ceased production--including the Toyota Camry, the Mazda6, the Dodge Magnum, and even the Subaru Legacy. Compared with the pitiful approval ratings for wagons, the president seems beloved enough to run for president.
Much of the blame for the wagon's demise, of course, owes to the SUV boom. In the early 1990s, for reasons Freud could probably best explain, people who had no need for truck-based sport/utes --- they never drove off-road, never towed large trailers --- started snapping them up, mostly in a bid to keep their heads above each other ("I'll see your Chevy Tahoe Empire State Edition and raise you a Ford Expedition Sears Tower Series"). Rising gas prices have since purged many pretenders from the SUV-buying pool, but Americans still like to see eye-to-eye with bus drivers. Today, though, most can be found in the tall saddles of "simulated SUVs," aka car-based crossovers, sales of which nearly tripled (to 2.8 million annually) from 2001 to 2007.
The public's penchant for sitting in adult high chairs is curious -- especially since, as any driving enthusiast knows, a lower seating position and center of gravity provide superior control and responsiveness. This point hit home recently when I spent a week driving the new 2008 Volvo XC70, one of a handful of wagons still available stateside. True, the XC70 has some SUV-like features --- including four-wheel drive and 8.3 inches of ground clearance --- but it sports unmistakable wagon styling and, at 63.1 inches high, it's three inches shorter than, say, a Lexus RX 350 crossover (the regular V70 is more than two inches shorter still).
It takes only a few moments behind the wheel of a car to appreciate how nice it is to drive, well, a car. Trucks have their utilitarian roles to serve, and crossovers become more carlike every year, but only a true automobile delivers that satisfying, hovering-over-the-road ride and the ability to arc into swift corners without leaving your roofline a generous tip. What's more, a nice car cabin looks better than most SUV cockpits. Not only is the XC70 gorgeous inside (picture a Bang & Olufsen stereo with a steering wheel), it offers tons of cargo room --- more than 72 cubic feet --- and a low, easy-access load floor.
Even a Michigan snowfall didn't make me yearn for an SUV. In fact, judging by the XC70, wagons have never been better. They're even completely free of trilobites.
Art By Nigel Buchanan