Not only is the old station wagon trusty, it's apparently trendy

February 11, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Tooling around the Beltway last Saturday, I had the strange sensation of being fashionable. I was driving a station wagon, the vehicle type that trend spotters say is making a comeback.

At auto shows from Detroit to the one in Baltimore this weekend, wagons from BMW, Audi, Volvo, Subaru, Saab, Mercedes-Benz, Dodge and Chrysler have been drawing crowds. Automotive writers at Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Road & Track have recently penned pieces that proclaim, in the words of a Road & Track scribe, that "high-powered horsepower wagons are back and badder than ever."

The original station wagons were, according to automotive historian Bill Vance, horse-drawn wagons with fancy wooden bodies that carried passengers from railway stations to hotels. These new versions have dropped the "station" from their names; instead, they're marketed as sport wagons or crossover vehicles. Whatever their monikers, their appeal seems to be that they are easier to handle and easier on gas than the big SUVs, and they can haul big stuff, such as the box holding a new computer from the mall.

Driving around town in my 1993 Ford Taurus wagon I was flushed with pride as I realized I might be faintly "with it." Yet I knew I was a long way from traveling in the fast lane. When I drive the old station wagon, I pretty much stick to the slow lane, the one closest to the shoulder. The wagon has 164,411-plus miles on it, and it might need to pull over to the side of the road and rest.

Even though my ride was "trendy," it was not turning any heads. That could be because its body isn't beautiful. It does have twin "dimples": a dent on the right rear -- the aftermath of a tangle with a semi at the entrance to a Harbor Tunnel toll booth -- and a matching blemish on the other side where it once "kissed" a telephone pole. The side panels have so many scratches that they serve as the family's hieroglyphics, reminding me of past journeys. The crease on the right rear passenger door, for example, was inflicted one harried carpool morning years ago by a couple of trash cans that attacked the car at a tight turn in a John Street alley. The gouges on the front of the car are reminders of the many "bump and run" encounters with parking lot dividers. Then there is the "wrinkle line" -- some would say crack -- in the windshield. I inflicted that one cold morning a couple of winters back when I was in a rush to get to work, and I was too aggressive at chipping ice off the windshield. I have never hurried to work since.

My old wagon and the new ones have five doors, but the comparison pretty much stops there. The sports wagons feature seven-speaker sound systems. My wagon has what I call an episodic "pre-set" volume feature. Every so often a button on the radio sticks, so you end up with one volume level, usually loud, for a day or two until the button frees itself. The new wagons have fold-down seats, as do I. Theirs are leather. Mine are cloth with patches so worn that determining the "thread count" -- a measure, I am told, of a fabric's worth -- can be performed with the naked eyeball. A spot on the front seat, for instance, has a thread count of "two and holding."

The new wagons have plenty of muscle under their hoods. Most claim to get 18 to 19 miles a gallon in city driving and in the mid-20s on the highway. My owner's manual tells me that my engine has six cylinders. But the other day, listening to the engine as it idled at a stoplight on North Avenue, a murmur made me think that one cylinder is on vacation.

In its heyday, the station wagon used to get an honest 25 miles a gallon in city driving. On long trips, like our former spring-break treks to ski lodges in Vermont, it would get 30. Those days and trips are over. Now the station wagon is restricted to day trips to contiguous states, or short hops around town. For anything more demanding, we take the newer car, a 2001 PT Cruiser.

But what the 13-year-old station wagon lacks in style and horsepower, it makes up for in attitude. Unlike its younger, better-looking successors, this old, dowdy wagon isn't sniffy about what kind of load it hauls. It has three seats, not the chintzy two-seat systems favored by many of the newcomers. It has hauled a kids' basketball team. If somebody sitting in the "way back" -- the rear-facing third seat -- got car sick, it would not ruin the upholstery.

You can toss a Christmas tree or a kayak on its roof rack, and if anything slips off, as roof-rack baggage has been known to do, you only have to worry about damage to the cargo, not the carrier. Another chip in its paint job just adds to its patina.

Attracted as I am by the new wagons, I am sticking with my old one. Its future, like the bulb illuminating its speedometer, gets dimmer daily. But it is a good car to drive to the dump (excuse me, recycling station). Since Monday is a trash-collection holiday in Baltimore (in honor, I guess, of Lincoln, the president whom a mob here once threatened), I tossed a load of trash in the back of the station wagon and deposited it at a solid-waste yard at 2840 Sisson St. Along the way, a little stale beer leaked from one of the bags. That might have disturbed the decor of a sports wagon, but the old gray cloth of the station wagon simply soaked it in.

rob.kasper@baltimoresun.com

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