The Nation's Pulse

The Vista Cruiser Reborn!

Left to their own devices, automakers rediscover the station wagon as the ideal successor to gas-guzzling SUVs.

By 10.31.06

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In the end, it won't be $3 per gallon gas that causes Americans to rethink SUVs -- it will be their rediscovery of the station wagon.

Traditional, truck-based SUVs with big V-8s have been on skid row, sales-wise, for the past two years and more. There are a handful of exceptions -- such as the flashy Cadillac Escalade -- but overall, the market for these big lunkers has tanked. Ford had to cancel its super-sized Excursion and the grand-daddy of all the SUV Blingmobiles -- Lincoln's Navigator -- is almost a sideshow relic these days.

It's no coincidence that the slide began just as wagons began to reappear -- only the modern incarnations aren't called that, of course. Instead, the marketers and product planners came up with an ingenious new designation -- "crossover."

But the idea behind the new name is largely the same.

Like the Vista Cruisers and Colony Parks of another era, today's crossovers are generally large, roomy vehicles that feel and look pretty substantial. They have versatile interiors that can be configured to handle people or cargo (or both). But unlike the originals (and like the SUVs they are supplanting), crossovers ride higher off the ground than the typical passenger car, giving the driver a better view of things and a sense of confidence. This is a big draw for many buyers, especially women.

Another departure from the wagons of the past is that today's crossovers typically have (or offer) some kind of all-wheel-drive system -- providing traction and safety advantages that are actually better (at least on paved roads) than the truck-style 4WD found in traditional SUVs. And of course, crossovers tend to be sporty in style -- reflecting the owner's "active lifestyle," which of course was also a major SUV selling point.

The only things missing are the fully boxed frame and two-speed transfer case -- design features that are about as useful to the average suburbanite as his or her appendix. Losing them -- and the gas pig mileage and clunky handling that comes with them -- is hardly a sacrifice if the other attributes (roominess, sportiness, etc.) can be kept.

So it's no wonder this market segment is growing like Kudzu in Atlanta. Ford, for its part, is on its knees praying that two new crossover models it has on deck for 2007 and 2008 -- the Ford Edge and Lincoln Aviator -- will help turn around what to this point has been an incredibly bleak year. GM and Chrysler are still heavily invested in their SUVs, of course -- but both have pawed the chicken guts and know where the market's heading. Dodge and its Jeep arm have a couple of smallish crossovers already out -- Caliber and Compass -- while the General is looking at several possible crossover spin-offs that could be derived from the Zeta/Camaro program, including a rear-drive (or all-wheel-drive) Chevy Impala sedan/wagon sometime after 2009. The Caprice Classic returns!

But GM and Ford, especially, are going to have to run fast to catch up to the imports -- who saw the trend first and got their crossovers to market first. Models like Nissan's Murano (and V-8 powered Infiniti FX45) can out-run, out-handle and even out-haul (when it comes to passenger capacity) an equivalent-in-size SUV -- a design type notorious for its inefficient use of space. That makes them fun to drive -- as well being more efficient to drive.

Lights are going on in the brainpans of folks all over the U.S.

People turned to SUVs back in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the trend began, because SUVs were big, powerful, versatile things that were great for families and for carting stuff around. There used to be big sedans and wagons like the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and its kind that could do this job -- and they were the dominant vehicle type in the American market for decades. But the gas shortages of the '70s (and later, emissions requirements mandated by Congress to deal with the growing problem of smog) effectively killed them off. People were left to contemplate downsized, front-drive K-cars and the like -- and many people didn't like these downsized, down-powered cars one bit. A few noticed that a Chevy K-5 Blazer or Ford Bronco was a lot like their old (and much-missed) road king V-8 wagon. And it didn't get stuck in the snow, either.

The SUV craze was born.

Now things have come full circle -- and the "modern" SUV is yesterday's wagon, on the verge of pariah-hood and extinction (without "help" from the government, thank you very much) while wagons have been reborn as a "crossovers" -- and are finding a large and growing audience of enthusiastic buyers.

And all it took was a better idea. No strong-arming of the auto industry was necessary. It figured it out by itself.

And so did we.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.