The station wagon is an automotive Rorschach test. Some people recall happy childhood memories of ricocheting around the cargo area while traveling to Grandma's house (no safety seats back then). Others remember the fake-wood cladding and cringe.
Modern stations wagons have evolved from those 1960s and '70s styles, however, and should no longer be overlooked by car shoppers. My 11-year-old Volvo has schlepped two kids to countless soccer scrimmages and whisked the family to Yellowstone jammed with camping gear. It gets decent gas mileage and slips into parking spots that larger vehicles surrender. Consider them sedans with a backpack.
Since the early 1990s, automakers have predicted the station wagon's triumphant comeback in the U.S. I'm still waiting, but not in vain. There are plenty of great 2011 models to choose from in all price ranges.
On the less-expensive end is Hyundai's Elantra Touring. Starting at $16,215, Kelley Blue Book has anointed it "a top 10 coolest new car under $18,000."
There's also the Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen, which begins at $20,595. It has that desirable, solid German feel and crisp handling, and can haul a full load of gardening supplies home from the nursery.
Volvo, once the king of wagons, is down to just the V50 for 2011. The larger V70 is now sold only as the sport-utility wannabe XC70.
Audi also has pared down its wagon count. The A4 and A6 are available in this functional body style, but the high-performance S versions have been nixed. Mercedes-Benz now offers only the E350 4MATIC, an all-wheel-drive wagon that tilts toward crossover ambitions.
Acura just released the TSX Sport Wagon; it's based on the European Honda Accord, which is smaller than the American version. It's attractive, sporty and well priced at $31,820.
Cadillac has the crisp CTS Sport Wagon. If the 270-horsepower V6 isn't enough power, there's a 556-horsepower "V" version that can crush a sports car in a drag race. Careful, though -- the kids will inevitably brag to your spouse.
Some cars are in denial over their wagon orientation. The Subaru Outback ($24,220) is marketed as a crossover, though it's clearly a Legacy wagon with a larger trunk and additional ground clearance.
It could be argued that the MINI Clubman is a small wagon with unique Dutch doors. At $21,800, the diminutive hauler packs a lot of personality and style.
Desirable wagons missing from our shores include the curvaceous Volvo V60 and the useful, affordable and sculptured Ford Focus wagon. Our loss. BMW is exiting what it calls the "touring" market in the States.
There's still hope for the beautiful Opel Insignia, though. Sold in sedan form as the Regal in the U.S., the Buick folks haven't yet ruled out the more practical version for us. The same goes for the rakish Sonata wagon that Hyundai is teasing.