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A station wagon, also called an estate car and an estate, is an automotive body-style variant of a sedan/saloon with its roof extended rearward over a shared passenger/cargo volume with access at the back via a third or fifth door (the liftgate or tailgate), instead of a trunk lid. The body style transforms a standard three-box design into a two-box design — to include an A, B, and C-pillar, as well as a D-pillar. Station wagons can flexibly reconfigure their interior volume via fold-down rear seats to prioritize either passenger or cargo volume.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a station wagon as "an automobile with one or more rows of folding or removable seats behind the driver and no luggage compartment but an area behind the seats into which suitcases, parcels, etc., can be loaded through a tailgate."
When a model range includes multiple body styles, such as sedan, hatchback and station wagon, the models typically share their platform, drivetrain and bodywork forward of the A-pillar. In 1969, Popular Mechanics said, "Station wagon-style ... follows that of the production sedan of which it is the counterpart. Most are on the same wheelbase, offer the same transmission and engine options, and the same comfort and convenience options."
Station wagons have evolved from their early use as specialized vehicles to carry people and luggage to and from a train station, and have been marketed worldwide.
Station wagon and wagon are the common names in American, Canadian and Australian English, while estate car and estate are common in the rest of the English-speaking world. Both names harken to the car's role as a shuttle, with storage space for baggage, between country estates and train stations.
Having shared antecedents with the British shooting-brake (originally a wooden-bodied vehicle used to carry shooting parties with their equipment and game), station wagons have been marketed as breaks, using the French term (which is sometimes given fully as break de chasse, literally "hunting break." Early U.S. models often had exposed wooden bodies and were therefore called woodies.
Manufacturers may designate station wagons across various model lines with a proprietary nameplate. Examples include "Estate" (Mercedes-Benz), "Avant" (Audi), "Touring" (BMW), "Break" (Citroën), Kombi or Variant (Volkswagen and Saab) and "Sports Tourer" or Caravan (Opel).
Both station wagons and hatchbacks typically share a two-box design configuration, with one shared, flexible, interior volume for passengers and cargo — and a rear door for cargo access. Further distinctions are highly variable:
Cargo Volume: Station wagons prioritize passenger and cargo volume — with windows aside the cargo volume. Of the two body styles, a station wagon roof (viewed in profile) more likely extends to the very rearmost of the vehicle, enclosing a full-height cargo volume — a hatchback roof (especially a liftback roof) might more likely rake down steeply behind the C-Pillar, prioritizing style over interior volume, with shorter rear overhang and with smaller windows (or no windows) aside the cargo volume.
Cargo floor contour: Favoring cargo capacity, a station wagon may prioritize a fold-flat floor, where a hatchback would more likely allow a cargo floor with pronounced contour (e.g. the new Mini or the sixth generation Ford Fiesta).
Rear suspension: A station wagon may include reconfigured rear suspension for additional load capacity and to minimize intrusion in the cargo volume, (e.g., worldwide versions of the first generation Ford Focus).
Rear Door: Hatchbacks typically feature a top-hinged liftgate for cargo access, with variations ranging from a two-part liftgate/tailgates (e.g., the 1958 A40 Countryman) to a complex tailgate that can function either as a full tailgate or as a trunk lid (e.g., the 2008 Škoda Superb's TwinDoor). Station wagons have also enjoyed numerous tailgate configurations. Hatchbacks may be called Liftbacks when the opening area is very sloped and the door is lifted up to open.
Automotive journalist Dan Neil, in a 2002 New York Times report described verticality of the rear cargo door as the prime distinction between a hatchback and a station wagon: "Where you break the roofline, at what angle, defines the spirit of the vehicle", he said. "You could have a 90-degree break in the back and have a station wagon."
A model range may include multiple configurations, as with the 2005–2007 Ford Focus which offered sedan (ZX4), wagon (ZXW) and three and five-door hatchback (ZX3 and ZX5) models.
The first station wagons were a product of the age of train travel. They were originally called "depot hacks" because they worked around train depots as hacks (short for hackney carriage, an old name for taxis). They also came to be known as "carryalls" and "suburbans".
Before the 1930s, manufacturers assembled the framing of passenger compartments of passenger vehicles in hardwood. In automobiles, the framing was sheathed in steel and coated with colored lacquer for protection. Eventually, all-steel bodies were adopted because of their strength, cost, and durability.
Early station wagons evolved from trucks and were viewed as commercial vehicles (along with vans and pickup trucks), not consumer automobiles—with the framing of the early station wagons left unsheathed because of the commercial nature of the vehicles. Early station wagons were fixed roof vehicles, but lacked the glass that would normally enclose the passenger compartment, and had only bench seats. In lieu of glass, side curtains of canvas could be unrolled. More rigid curtains could be snapped in place to protect passengers from the elements outside.
Initially, manufacture of the wagon's passenger compartments was outsourced to custom body builders because the production of the all-wood bodies was very time consuming. Major producers of wood-bodied station wagons included Mitchell Bentley, Hercules, USB&F, Cantrell, and other custom builders. The roofs of "woodie" wagons were usually made of stretched canvas that was treated with a waterproofing dressing.
Eventually, the car companies themselves began building their own station wagons. Star (a division of Durant Motors) was the first car company to offer a factory-built station wagon, in 1923. In 1919, the Stoughton Wagon Company of Stoughton, Wisconsin, had begun putting custom wagon bodies on Model T chassis. By 1929 Ford was by far the biggest seller of station wagons. Since Ford owned its own hardwood forest and mills, it began supplying the wood components for the Model A wagon (although initially some final assembly still took place away from the factory, by Briggs, in Detroit, with wood from the Mengel Company in Louisville, Kentucky). The same year, J. T. Cantrell provided woodie bodies for Chrysler vehicles until 1931.
By the mid-1930s, wood-bodied station wagons had some prestige. They were priced higher than regular cars and were popular in affluent communities. By 1941, the Chrysler Town and Country was the most expensive car in the company's lineup.
Woodie wagons required constant maintenance: bodies were finished in varnishes that required recoating; bolts and screws required periodic tightening as wood expanded and contracted through the seasons. In 1935, General Motors introduced a steel-bodied eight-seat Suburban wagon, based on the Chevrolet truck.
Woodies popularity was renewed, in the surfing culture, during the 1950s and 1960s.
After World War II, automobile production resumed, with prewar tooling. New advances in production techniques made all-steel station wagon bodies more practical, eliminating the cost, noise, and maintenance associated with wood bodies.
The first factory-built all-steel station wagon in North America was the 1946 Jeep Station Wagon, based on the Jeep produced by Willys-Overland during World War II. Willys offered a trim level, evoking earlier wood bodywork, rendered instead in paint and trim work. In 1935, Chevrolet introduced the Chevy Suburban, with an all-steel station-wagon body on a commercial-truck chassis. In 1947, Crosley introduced an all-steel, car-based wagon in Europe.
In 1949, Plymouth introduced the first all-steel station wagon in the U.S., the two-door Suburban, based on an automobile platform. In 1950 Plymouth discontinued the woodie station wagon, converting to all steel bodywork. Buick discontinued production of the last North American wood bodywork after the 1953 model year. Morris of England continued to market its Morris Minor Traveller until the late 1960s.
By the late 1950s, wood body construction was replaced with wood accents on all-steel bodies. Ford introduced the Country Squire with simulated woodgrain paneling. By 1955, only Ford and Mercury offered a woodie model, accomplishing the simulation of wood with other materials, e.g., steel, plastics and DiNoc (a vinyl product).
Ford was undoubtedly the most known for the use of woodgrain appliques on its vehicles. In addition to the well-known Country Squire, the "Squire" trim level was an available option in a few different model ranges. These include the Falcon Squire, Fairlane Squire, and in the 1970s the Pinto Squire Surviving examples of these smaller "Squire" wagons are much rarer than the more popular full-size Country Squire, which was ordered and produced in much higher quantities. The Squire was always the highest trim level of any Ford Wagon and included the signature woodgrain applique, and usually additional exterior chrome, nicer interior trim, special emblems, etc. Other manufacturers marketed wagons and minivans with simulated wood off and on from the mid-1950s through the early 1990s. The most notable of these are the Chrysler Town and Country, The Buick Estate Wagon, The Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, The Chevrolet Kingswood Estate and the Mercury Colony Park. Simulated wood appliqués became less common in the 1980s. With the introduction of the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon-like model, aftermarket firms began selling simulated woodgrain kits.
Station wagons experienced highest production levels in the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s. The late 1950s through the mid-1960s was also the period of greatest variation in body styles, with pillared two- and four-door models marketed alongside hardtop (no B-pillar) four-door models (e.g., American Motors' Rambler Cross-Country wagons). Rambler offered a four-door of this body style in 1956, followed by Mercury, Oldsmobile, and Buick in 1957; Chrysler entered the market in 1960. The pillarless designs could be expensive to produce, added wind noise, and created structural issues with body torque. GM eliminated the hardtop wagon from its lineup in 1959, and AMC and Ford exited the field beginning with their 1960 and 1961 vehicles, leaving Chrysler and Dodge with the body style through the 1964 model year.
Traditionally, full-sized American station wagons were configured for six or nine passengers. The basic arrangement for seating six was three passengers in the front and three passengers in the rear, all on bench-type seats; to accommodate nine, a third bench seat was installed in the rear cargo area, over the rear axle. Through 1956, all wagons had the third row facing forward, but Chrysler's 1957 models had a roof too low to permit a forward-facing seat installed over the axle, so it was turned around and placed behind the axle. GM wagons would adopt the rear-facing third row with 1959 models until 1971, and again in 1977.
In full-size Ford and Mercury wagons built after 1964, the configuration was two seats facing each other, placed behind the rear axle. According to Ford, each seat would accommodate two people, raising the total seating capacity to ten passengers; however, these seats were quite narrow in later models and could accommodate only one passenger, limiting the total capacity to eight passengers.
The 1964–1972 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser and 1964–1969 Buick Sport Wagon featured raised rooflines beginning above the second-row seat and continuing all the way to the rear tailgate. Above the second seat were acrylic glass skylights in which passengers could view the outside from overhead. On the three-seat models of these wagons, the third seat faced forward as did the first and second seats. Later, the 1971-1976 full-size "clamshell" wagons used a similar raised roof to provide adequate headroom for a forward-facing third row, but without the skylights.
Recent models of station wagons are usually built on smaller platforms and accommodate five or six passengers (depending on whether bucket or bench seats are fitted in front) in two rows of seating. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate, a mid-sized station wagon, has an optional rear-facing jump seat for two passengers in the cargo area.
Full-size station wagons have been replaced by medium or full-size SUVs (both light truck and crossover types) with three-row seating such as the Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition, and Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.
In 1951, the compact 100-inch (2,540 mm) wheelbase Nash Rambler line included a two-door station wagon design whose production continued through 1955. After the merger of Nash and Hudson, the new company, American Motors (AMC) reintroduced the two-door wagon in the "new" Rambler American line in 1959 with only a few modifications from the original version. This was a car targeting buyers looking for economy and load space, as well as a strategy of reintroducing an old design. This two distinct model run was a successful business decision that is almost unheard of in automobile history.
The 1955–1957 Chevrolet Nomad and sibling Pontiac Safari were two-door station wagons. Mercury produced a two-door hardtop (no "B-pillar") station wagon from 1957 to 1960, named the Commuter. Chevrolet produced the 1964–1965 Chevelle 300 series two-door station wagon.
In 1961 Volkswagen introduced the Type 3 (also known in various markets as the Variant and the Volkswagen 1500 (later the Volkswagen 1600)), available as a two-door sedan and as a two-door station wagon, which was commonly called the Squareback. VW's then-typical rear-engine layout was retained for the Type 3, but the engine profile was flattened, resulting in a small car offering interior room, as well as trunk space in the front. The model was offered through the 1973 model year.
The Chevrolet Vega Kammback, introduced in September 1970, was the first U.S.-made four-passenger wagon and the first two-door wagon from GM in six years. It shared its wheelbase and length with Vega coupe versions and was produced in the 1971–1977 model years. The Pontiac Astre Safari wagon is a Pontiac rebadged Vega that was introduced in the U.S for the 1975 model year. The Chevrolet Monza and Pontiac Sunbird Safari wagons replaced the Vega and Astre respectively. Retaining the Vega wagon body, they were produced for the 1978 and 1979 models years with Pontiac and Buick engines.
Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat 2-door wagons were produced between 1972 and 1980. American Motors also entered the market with a wagon version of the AMC Pacer, produced between 1977 and 1980. The last two-door wagon available in America, the Volkswagen Fox, was discontinued in 1993.
In the United Kingdom, estate car versions of small and middle sized models were more common. The estate ("Traveller") versions of the Morris 1000 ("Minor") and Mini, with external ash wood frames (structural on the 1000); had two vertically divided van-type rear doors in the style of older shooting-brakes (see "station wagons around the world", below). The Hillman Husky estate version of the Hillman Imp was unusual in being a rear-engined estate. Other two-door station wagons in Europe included the Ford Escort, Morris 1100, Vauxhall Viva, Vauxhall Chevette, Fiat 127, and Saab 95.
A former East German car fleet made uniformly of Trabants and Wartburgs had a distinct luxurious version of 2-doors estate coupe Trabant 601 Estate with an extra C-column far back to extend the rear compartment of the car. This version had a full scale liftgate allowing to access the entire rear room of nearly 1000 l with rear seats folded.
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Since the 1970s, sales of station wagons in the United States and Canada dropped for several reasons. The 1973 oil crisis was a turning point against the "traditional classic American station wagon—with its acres of fake woodgrain siding, sticky vinyl bench seats and lazy-revving V-8 engine", which have been described as "wallowing land arks".
In 1984 the Chrysler Corporation introduced the first minivans derived from the K platform. While the K platform was also used for the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries station wagon models, the minivan would soon eclipse them in popularity. Since minivans and SUVs are classified as light trucks under US CAFE standards, manufacturers had a strong incentive to market those vehicles over station wagons, which are classified as cars. Station wagons have remained popular in Europe and other locations whose emissions and efficiency regulations do not distinguish between cars and light trucks.
The emergence and popularity of sport utility vehicles which closely approximate the traditional wagon bodystyle was a further blow. After struggling sales, the Chevrolet Caprice and the Buick Roadmaster, the last American full size wagons, were discontinued in 1996. The Ford Taurus wagon was discontinued after the 2005 model year. The Dodge Magnum was marketed during the 2005–2008 model years.
Since then, smaller wagons have been sold in the U.S. as less expensive alternatives to SUVs and minivans. Domestic wagons also remained in the Ford, Mercury, and Saturn lines until 2004 when the bodies began a phase-out, replaced by car-based crossover SUVs and minivans designed to look like station wagons.
The last subcompact station wagon produced in the United States and Canada was the 1992 Toyota Corolla. Compact station wagons have been declining since the 2000s. Ford dropped the Ford Focus wagon for 2008, and Subaru replaced the Impreza wagon with a 5-door hatchback model. Volvo announced that they will withdraw their compact station wagon, the V50, from the U.S market by 2012 due to poor sales figures. In Europe the V50 remains popular.
European luxury carmakers such as Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz still offered wagons in their North American lineup, using the labels "Avant", "Touring", and "Estate" instead of wagon. However, these wagons had fewer trim and powertrain levels than their sedan counterparts, for instance the wagon styles of high-performance trims such as the BMW M5, Audi RS6, Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG were never imported to North America. The Mercedes-Benz W204 C-Class wagon was not offered in the United States and Canada unlike the previous generation. The BMW 5 Series Touring was dropped from BMW's North American lineup after the conclusion of the E60 generation, due to slow sales in the United States with only 400 wagons sold in 2009. Due to the popularity of SUVs in North America, these European manufacturers have been supplanting their wagons with car-based crossovers such as the BMW Sports Activity Series, the Audi Q5, and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, these offer a wider range of options and engines than wagons.
However, the Cadillac CTS gave rise to its wagon counterpart, the 2010 CTS Sportwagon. Unlike European luxury wagons sold in North America, the CTS Sportwagon has almost as many trim levels as its sedan counterpart.
Although station wagons have declined in North America, they offer several advantages over car-based crossovers. Wagons offer cargo space without compromising driving dynamics or radically increasing weight. The high fuel prices in Europe and Japan have led to nearly half of all production vehicles being wagons, and a similar result is expected for the United States. This trend is already being seen with an increase in wagons being sold in the United States. Cadillac's 2009 CTS Sport Wagon, Acura's 2011 TSX Sport Wagon, and Lexus’ CT200h Hybrid wagon are examples of this increased proliferation.
European manufacturers often built two-door station wagons in the post-war period for the compact class, and not four-door models, a practice that continued at Ford (amongst others) with its Escort Mark III, for example, well into the 1980s. Usually, by that time, manufacturers created four-door models. In Europe, Australia and New Zealand, these vehicles remain popular and in volume production, although minivans (known in Europe as MPVs—multi-purpose vehicles) and the like have had some impact. As in North America, early station wagons were aftermarket conversions and had their new bodywork built with a wooden frame, sometimes with wooden panels, sometimes steel. Station wagons were the originators of fold down seats to accommodate passengers or cargo.
Station wagons are generally called estate cars or simply estates in the United Kingdom. The term shooting-brake, a term for an original hunting vehicle, came to be known synonymously with station wagon and were also custom built as modified luxury coupés with an estate car-like back. They generally retain two side doors. Until the early 1960s many of them were built with structural wooden rear frames, making them some of the most expensive and luxurious "woodies" ever built. A smaller Estate car was the very popular Morris Minor Traveller Estate which copied the wooden side panel frames of larger designs. Most small cars produced in the UK from the 1950s until the 1980s had Estate versions, some of which were also used as small delivery vans minus the rear windows.
The British companies Rover and Austin produced 4×4 vehicles (the Land Rover and the Gipsy, respectively) in the 1950s. Apart from the standard canvas-topped utility vehicles, these 4×4s were available in estate car body styles that were sold as "Station Wagons". They incorporated more comfortable seating and trim than standard editions (which were typically aimed at agricultural and military buyers) and together with options such as heaters made the Station Wagon vehicles more attractive to private buyers. The name was alien in the UK, but was probably chosen because of the high number of these vehicles that went to export markets such as Africa and Australia, where the name was understood. Early advertising for the Land Rover version took the name literally, showing the vehicle collecting people and goods from a railway station. Land Rover still calls the passenger-carrying variations of its Defender model "Station Wagons".
In France almost all station wagon models are called the Break (note the different spelling from the English shooting brake). French breaks from Peugeot and Citroën in particular were available in seven- or eight-seater "family" versions long before MPVs became known in Europe.
The German Volkswagen Polo crossed type divisions by offering a two-door station wagon shape (not named as a wagon) as the main model in its range in some markets in the 1980s—despite the existence of two-door sedan and hatchback ("coupé") variants.
Japanese manufacturers did not value station wagons highly until very recently. For many years, models sold as well-appointed station wagons in export markets were sold as utilitarian "van" models in the home market. This explains why station wagons were not updated for consecutive generations in a model's life in Japan: for instance, while a sedan might have a model life of four years, the wagon was expected to serve eight — the 1979 Toyota Corolla (built until 1987) and the 1987 Mazda Capella (built until 1996) are examples. The Nissan Avenir is an example of a model that began its life as a utility vehicle and became a well-equipped passenger car in the 1990s. Toyota no longer offers a wagon version of the Camry, but still offers wagon versions of Corolla or Auris.
In Australia and New Zealand the most popular station wagons are the large Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore models. These are usually built on a longer wheelbase than their sedan counterparts, though they share the same door skins, leading to a slightly unusual appearance with the rear door not reaching all the way to the rear wheel arch. Mitsubishi's Australian subsidiary designed wagon versions of its Magna and Verada for the local market, although it no longer offers a large wagon. Smaller wagons have declined in popularity, in comparison with Europe, although they have traditionally been more popular in New Zealand than in Australia. For example, the Ford Telstar was offered as a wagon in New Zealand, but not Australia, even though the mechanically identical Mazda 626 was sold in both countries.
Many modern station wagons have an upward-swinging, full-width, full-height rear door supported on gas springs—often where the rear window can swing up independently. Historically, wagons have employed numerous designs:
Some station wagons are fitted with additional front-facing or rear-facing seats, along with safety belts, to enable passengers to be carried safely in the cargo area.