Australia’s love affair with the Sports Utility Vehicle continues unabated – and why not, when our wide brown land is perfect for offroad exploration and long weekends away with the family?
The SUV has truly hit its stride in the past decade, with the compact market in particular soaring in popularity thanks to affordable pricing, loads of spec, and oodles of choice from many manufacturers.
It’s meant that there are now fewer station wagons being sold, with crossovers, MPVs and even vans picking up many would-be wagon buyers.
But that doesn’t mean you should simply default to an SUV when looking for a car that can carry a load, a pet, or bulk luggage. A sedan-based wagon may actually suit you better, and in more ways than one.
The SUV is designed to not only go on road but off it, so its dual purpose means more tech, more complicated suspension, and specialised equipment such as all-terrain tyres, which are larger and more expensive than your typical road tyre.
The more heavy-duty or specialised the car, the more it can cost to service. Now, some SUVs have long service intervals, so it really depends on the make and model as to whether servicing costs will even out or come out on top for an SUV compared to a station wagon.
Then there’s registration. A heavier vehicle can mean paying a bigger annual fee; the theory is that a heavier vehicle does more damage to the road, so the owner has to pay a higher rate.
A wagon will usually offer better fuel economy than a similarly engined SUV, thanks to its lighter weight and less drag through the air due to a more streamlined body. Add in the frugal diesels and turbocharged four-cylinders of cars like the Ford Mondeo or Volvo V60 wagon, the Volkswagen and Skoda offerings (though maybe not the small diesels right now!), and the luxury Germans, and it’s clear that wagons have a definite advantage at the bowser over larger, heavier and not-so-slippery SUVs.
Wagons are sedan-based, so are lower to the ground than SUVs, and typically are lighter as well. Add road suspension instead of soft/offroad suspension and smaller tyres, and you have a vehicle that should handle better than a SUV. This agility can come in handy, particularly if you’re trying to avoid an accident.
The flipside to this is that many SUVs may come out of a crash or impact better, due to their physical size and weight, or even their height – though other cars and pedestrians probably won’t fare so well.
Here, the SUV is a clear winner. A higher driving position offers better forward vision, while the side mirrors are typically bigger too. Rear vision can be compromised, but most SUVs have reversing cameras and sensors. Both really should be standard in this day and age, and are a must-have for an SUV.
Vision is also often better in the second row of seats in an SUV, which means happier littler people. For example, the Holden Commodore Sportwagon is a lovely design for its genre, but pop a small human in the dark rear row of the base-level Omega and watch the tears of boredom roll; the compromise for that lovely design is a high shoulder and sill, and a smaller window.
Of course, the same can be said of some SUV types – Mazda’s otherwise excellent CX-7 and CX-5 are both dark and dull for juniors, while the Citroen DS4’s smallish rear windows don’t even lower. At all.
THE THIRD ROW
Many SUVs these days come with a third row of seats. Of course, many third rows are only good for kids or agile small adults, and when in use can reduce boot space to almost nothing – but you can always tow a box trailer or chuck a storage box on the roof if you’re lugging on a big trip. Just be sure to check that your side impact airbags go all the way to the third-row seats.
Believe it or not, a couple of wagons (Mercedes E-Class) can come with an optional third row of ‘dickie seats’ – those rear-facing seats from which children are often seen waving, gesticulating or being downright rude out the back window to the drivers behind. They can also be retrofitted. But it’s best to buy a car that is actually designed to carry the number of passengers you require, rather than having to find ways to squeeze extra people in afterwards. Not to mention the rear airbag and rear crash structure issue.
One of the main reasons you may choose a wagon over a soft-roader is the boot.
The popularity of SUVs has killed off some of the really big-booted beasts, namely the Ford Falcon. While the aforementioned Commodore Sportwagon is an attractive and resolved design, it sacrificed its boot space for its shape – the Sportwagon has a useful 900L boot, but this is a whopping 500L less than its VZ wagon predecessor.
However, this is still better than some SUVs, particularly in the compact sector, which can offer an upright space smaller than some hatches. Be sure to investigate the boot space with seats up and down, and check that the seats fold fully flat if you need a really big cargo area for load-lugging.
Even if you only venture off that beaten track a few times a year, it’s still great to have the freedom to do so on a whim in an SUV. But don’t discount the wagon. Most wagons will handle even a rough dirt road without issue, and have the clearance to negotiate the odd obstacle.
Unless you are sure you need an SUV to caper through the forests and fields, it pays to look further afield than the usual suspects for a vehicle that’s right for you – a wagon, an MPV, crossover, or wagon-backed hatch may be better suited to your purposes.