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`Bye-bye, station wagon - hello, minivan?' The station wagon vs. the minivan: Will one surpass the other?

By Charles E. DoleSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1988



The station wagon came about for a very good reason. It could carry a load of people, plus their luggage, and do things a standard car wasn't designed to.

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The wagon could be driven to the finest restaurant or the poshest country club. Simply, it had style. Then on the weekend it could take the trash to the dump or the lawn mower to the repair shop.

But will the station wagon survive the onslaught of the minivan?

That's a question I put to Louis E. Lataif, head of Ford's North American Automotive Operations.

``The only wagon that seems to be impaired by the success of the minivans is the midsize wagon,'' Mr. Lataif replied, adding, ``The Escort wagon is going like gangbusters, and large wagons haven't been affected all that much.''

Backing up Lataif is Thomas D. Mignanelli, head of sales and marketing for Nissan in the United States: ``The Stanza wagon segment is going to get much, much bigger.''

And from Thomas E. Gale, design chief at Chrysler Motors: ``There are always people who are traditionalists. If they've been buying wagons for a long time, they may want to continue to buy a wagon.''

On the other hand, John McNeil, an analyst with Data Resources, a Lexington, Mass., consulting firm, sees it this way: ``Bye-bye, wagon - hello, minivan!'' - although he concedes there are still a lot of wagons around.

``Minivans will continue to chip away at the full-size station wagon, which is pretty much designed out,'' he asserts. ``The big wagon exists in its final form.''

A switch in usage, Mr. McNeil suggests, could ensure the long-term survival of the wagon. ``The European usage of wagons is much more commercial, so we may see more businesses opting out of the larger vehicles and going to the wagons. But as a family transportation vehicle, I think we're going to see continued inroads by the minivan.''

The fact is, nobody really knows for sure.

The minivan, of course, is compact, garageable, and, in the case of the car-derived, front-drive Chrysler minivan, the step-up into the van is low. Too, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager now come in two sizes to give buyers a choice.

Both the Ford Aerostar and Chevrolet Astro are rear-wheel-drive and derived from trucks, although new versions are on the way. Nissan's San Diego-based design studio is now working on a joint-venture vehicle for both Ford and Nissan, while GM is coming out with its all-purpose vehicle in '89.

``We haven't yet seen the final genesis of those vehicles,'' says McNeil.

Up to now, a lot of the minivan phenomenon has come out of the small family sedans. They're the people who might have bought a two-door car, but because they have two small children, they've found that this other configuration for about the same price is a lot more practical for them.

Right now, Chrysler is riding high in its close-to-the-ground minivan while still hedging its bets with its lineup of wagons. Sooner or later, everyone else is going to come out with a midsize, front-drive, high-volume minivan, and Chrysler will feel the heat.

As for the Japanese, up to now they've been hamstrung by their internal design constraints. But, predicts McNeil, ``we'll see some exciting vehicles coming out of Japan in the future.''

Meanwhile, there are plenty of wagons around, and the prices run all over the lot. Ford's base-level Escort wagon starts at under $8,000, while the V-6 Taurus starts at more than $12,000, including automatic transmission, power steering, and radio. Ford's full-size LTD Crown Victorias begin at just over $15,000.

All GM car divisions except Cadillac field a fleet of wagons. A Chevrolet Cavalier wagon starts out at about $8,500, although the Caprice Classic three-seat wagon with V-8 engine lists in the mid-$14,000s. A Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country starts at about $13,000, and the Dodge Aries America wagon at $7,695.

The high-upscale Mercedes 300-TE posts a price in the upper-$40,000s, while Volkswagen's Brazilian-built Fox wagon lists for under $7,000. Peugeot offers several wagons in the US, ranging from $16,485 to $23,645. Toyota offers wagons in its Tercel and Camry lines, while Nissan competes with its Sentra and Maxima.

An Audi 5000 wagon starts at about $24,000, but the Quattro turbo wagon tops $35,000. Sweden's Volvo vies from a base of about $17,000 up to $32,000 for the 760 turbo GLE.