AUSTIN – Its place in the family garage captured by the boxy minivan in the early 1980s, the station wagon has been described as near death by some auto industry experts for more than a decade.
The long, wide highway yachts were at the height of their popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s. But they have been unable in recent years to hold their position as the ultimate family cruiser.
Too much competition and too little creative design work have dropped the wagon’s share of the U.S. car market from 12.6 percent in 1972 to only 4 percent in 1991.
But some automakers have refused to sign the station wagon’s death certificate.
They believe that a large, full-size luxury wagon will always find a niche in the upper end of the U.S. market.
Among automakers standing behind their big wagons are Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors. In the next 12 months GM will begin making every full-size wagon in its fleet at its assembly plant in Arlington, Texas.
The Chevrolet Caprice wagon, Buick Roadmaster Estate wagon and Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon owned an incredible 94.65 percent share of the full-size station wagon market last year.
While their combined sales of 30,096 in 1991 are down from 79,147 in 1985, GM officials say their slide has hit bottom and the triumvirate could sell 40,000 units this year if the economy begins to turn around.
Steve McAvoy, marketing manager for passenger cars at Chevrolet, knows as well as anyone the rigors of competing in the station-wagon market during the past 10 years.
He notes that Ford no longer produces full-size wagons: The Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis saw their market share drop from nearly 27 percent in 1985 to less than 5 percent in 1991, their last year in production.
“We now have to deal with a million-unit market called minivans,” McAvoy said. “The share of that segment for the full-size wagon dropped to about 10 percent and even Ford opted out.
“But we still believe there is a market out there for full-size wagons. It’s a stable market and a market we can make money in.”
Chrysler, more than any other company, has dealt the station wagon its deadliest blows.
Lee Iacocca’s minivans – the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager – created a new market segment and sold to the same customer that previously would have begged for the simulated-wood paneling of a Ford LTD wagon or the boat-towing capability of the Chevrolet Caprice wagon.
Then Chrysler’s Jeep franchise saw the popularity of its four-door sport utility, the Cherokee, rise. Cherokee has now been joined in the sport utility market by a four-door entry from Ford and other competitors from domestic and foreign brands.
Studies show that less than 10 percent of all sport utilities are ever taken off the road. Most industry experts believe that the pricey vehicles are simply rugged station wagons that don’t create a “married with children” image for their owners.
“I think the station wagon market could come back as the economy picks up, but not to the level it was at 20 years ago,” said Dave Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
“I don’t think that’s in the cards. There is just too much diversity in the marketplace. There are too many good minivans and other vehicles out there. It is pretty much a niche now.”
And as in any good niche that attracts the upper class, the European makers are coming in in force.
Mercedes-Benz markets a low-volume but high-priced luxury wagon, and Volvo’s popular wagon, although small, is aimed at cutting into the turf held by the Caprice, Custom Cruiser and Roadmaster Estate.
BMW is expected to market a new wagon within the next two months that could also take sales from GM’s big wagons.
“There is a definite market for station wagons in America,” said Darwin Clark, Buick’s general marketing manager. “There are those who do not want a minivan or a sport utility. They want a carlike vehicle, and the Roadmaster wagon fits the bill.”
Clark notes that the people buying wagons today are almost fiercely loyal to the product.
Minivan owners are between 35 and 50 years old, on average, and have families. Station wagon owners are between 25 and 55, and fewer have families. They also earn more.
Clark says that some Buick studies have shown that the average station wagon owner in some regions of the United States earns more than $100,000 a year.
Buick’s Roadmaster Estate is the most costly of the three wagons, with a base price of $23,040. The Custom Cruiser carries a base price of $20,995, and the Caprice wagon has a base price of $18,700.
The Caprice wagon is the only one in the group that competes with the Ford Taurus wagon, the midsize entry with a base price of $16,290. The Taurus wagon, although not in the same size class as the big GM wagons, is the best-selling wagon in the United States.
In fact, Ford produced three of the top five wagons sold in the United States last year: its Taurus, Escort and Sable models.
Beryl Stajich, marketing plans manager for large and midsize cars at Ford, said the company dropped its full-size wagon entry because it believed that it could compete with a well-equipped Taurus version.
He said 25 percent of all Taurus sales are wagons.
(Copyright 1992 Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Michael D. Towle)