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Jewish World Review April 29, 2003 / 27 Nissan, 5763

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports


The new SUV - station wagons


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If, in the American psyche, the sports car represents sex and the SUV represents power, the station wagon is a girdle on wheels: ugly, icky and all-too-intimately associated with mom.

To get behind the wheel of a wagon is to take on a lot of baggage - and not just the Samsonite kind. But perhaps, at last, America is ready to do that again.

Or perhaps not.

Judging from a jog through the International Auto Show, I would have sworn that station wagons are the next big thing. They were all over the place. I mean, isn't a sort of longish car with extra space in the back a wagon?

Apparently, not anymore. While a couple of companies were brave enough to use the s.w. word, far more had come up with a Country Squire full of euphemisms.

These aren't station wagons, ma'am! They're extended sedans! Mini-utes! They are sporty crossovers, sports utility wagons, sports tourers! Oh how sporty-sports-sporting are these station wag ... er ... sporty things!

Puh-leeez.

"Except for window dressing and about 10 miles a gallon, there's really not much difference between a van and an SUV and a wagon," says David Zemel, a car fanatic who keeps up with Detroit's latest.

That's because most of today's vehicles are a hybrid of yesterday's: the styling of a sport-utility vehicle meets the drivability of a sedan meets the space of a minivan. And what kind of car do they meet in? The granddaddy of 'em all: the station wagon!

Wagons were born around 1915, says Ken McDaniel, president of the American Station Wagon Owners Association (admittedly, not an enormous group). Back then, most vacationers traveled by rail. Hotels used wagons to get them to and from the train station - hence the term "station wagon."

"Typically, they would take a Model T and chop the back end off," says McDaniel. Then they'd have the local furniture maker build an enclosed box to stick on the end, to hold the travelers' trunks.

When the car manufacturers noticed, they started making their own wagons. "At one point, Henry Ford owned a whole forest in upper Michigan where they made the wood bodies," says McDaniel.

In 1954, the first fully steel-bodied station wagon was born, but the wood trim would forever echo its roots.

Wagonmania peaked in the '60s and '70s, as Americans moved to the burbs. The vehicle's popularity coincided with the baby boom, which is why so many boomers still associate wagons - and wood trim - with sitting behind mom (preferably all the way back, making faces at the cars behind them).

It is this uncomfortable reminder of mother in the driving seat of their lives that makes so many boomers squirm at the thought of a wagon.

And now it's time to get over that. As hoggish SUVs start to lose their cachet - hooray! - wagons by any name are ripe for a comeback (and hatchback).

If we could just quit resenting mom for devoting her life to shlepping us from Little League to piano lessons to prom fittings and, finally, to college, we could move on, saving on both gas and psychotherapy.

So without further ado, let us open our minds, hearts and garages and say together, "Welcome, wagon!"

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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