The station wagon is the vinyl record of the car industry. Rare, purist, and extremely cool when you find one, which means they are primed for a comeback.
So then it’s not shocking that the Buick Regal TourX I test drove stopped folks in New York traffic. It’s still an anomaly on public streets; GM told me only a few hundred have shipped. The first question everyone asked was, “What is it?” Turns out the Buick emblem on the hood, originally created in 1908 and among the oldest in the auto industry, doesn’t resonate the same way, as say, the three-pointed star. And very few people remember back to when the original Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon first hit the streets in 1947.
So for contemporary purposes, the Buick wagon is brand new to America and the northeast corridor where I live, where the most popular wagon, the Subaru Outback, is a common sight parked on the street. Other wagonesque offerings include the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, the Audi A4 Allroad, the Volvo V60 and V90 Cross Country, and the Mercedes-Benz E63 wagon. It’s a relatively short list.
In Europe, where station wagons and vinyl never went out of style, the Regal is rebadged as the Opel Insignia Country Tourer. Buick co-developed this vehicle with Opel before GM sold off its European brand. The European reverence for the wagon is one reason American journalists like to cover the Geneva Motor Show. If you ask most automotive journalists about some of their favorite rides, inevitably a station wagon will make the top ten.
But in America, the TourX is a paradox between the past and future. Here station wagons have faded to near obscurity, thanks to the rise of the SUV. But obscurity may work in the brand’s favor. The opening lines of the Don DeLillo classic novel White Noise about the impact of technology on civilization captured the station wagon’s cultural identity in the ‘80s. “The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.” It was the ride dorky parents schlepped their kids around town in, which became a bad joke. In other words, the station wagon was the original minivan.
That image, three decades later, has changed. “Customers don’t have a perception of what wagons were,” says Doug Osterhoff, marketing manager for Buick Cars, when I asked him about why they decided to build a wagon. “They didn’t live through woodsided wagons, and they are very cool, in the now. The whole perception is different.” In fact, Buick, long-known as an old timer’s car, is looking to the Regal TourX to add a bit of swagger.
But why are wagons cool? Why do car journalists fawn? For one, a station wagon performs more like a car, and Buick succeeded in building a wagon that’s fun to drive. The turbo engine on the TourX lends itself toward its authoritative power. It produces 250 horsepower and 295 pound feet of torque. “It has car-like driving dynamics,” Osterhoff says. “There are things about SUVs that [customers] don’t like. They prefer to be down, not up.” It’s ready for snowy climates and is equipped with standard all-wheel drive, a system used in other Buick vehicles like the Lacrosse.
Unlike the station wagons of yesteryear (shout out to my friend who drives a 1996 Chevy Caprice wagon with a powerful Corvette engine,) it doesn’t feel like a long, dangerous saloon, but actually has nimble handling. “The hardest part is getting the right proportions,” Bob Boniface, design director for Buick Exteriors, told me. “People can’t articulate what makes it athletic.”
The other plus factor for wagon customers is that they are roomier than cars, one reason the crossover segment is booming. “The utility of the cubic space storage is more than the big crossovers,” Osterhoff says. “They feel safer and more in control in their cars. They have a need for utility. People that own wagons, they don’t need a garage mate for their day-to-day ride. They keep their stuff in the back of the car.” (Unless you street-park like all those Outback drivers do in New York City.)
Creating more space was part of the design directive for Buick. It has the same wheelbase as its sedan counterpart, the Regal Sportback, but adds 3.4 inches in length, hence what accounts for that extra space for grocery-getting. Buick goes all-in on the TourX’s elongated elegant form. It’s over a foot longer than the Volvo V60 Cross Country, and is the longest in its class.
GM’s grasp of the European market through the Opel brand influenced design know-how. “In Europe they are more pragmatic and focused on efficiency,” Boniface says.
The Regal TourX calls itself luxury, but it’s not a fancy-pants wagon. Some of the interior materials feel plasticy. So while Mercedes-Benz gives the E63 Wagon variant high-touch piano gloss and multiple screens, Regal TourX is more knobs and buttons of the old-school ilk. Some of the accoutrements a tech-minded passenger would desire — wireless charging, rear park assist, adaptive cruise control, and the cavernous sliding moonroof — add on to the $35,070 base price. The car I tested retails for $41,765.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t pause to focus on Buick’s obsession with quiet as a key part of its appeal. Last year I visited GM’s Noise and Vibration Lab in Milford, Michigan. It’s the auto industry equivalent to Skywalker Sound. Buick uses parachute material, among other nifty tricks to make the cabin of its vehicle sound like silence. In other words, there’s no room in a Buick for white noise.
While I’ve always had a hankering for wagons and record players, it’s still a surprise when they come back into style as if they were new. Who knows, perhaps one day dial-up modems and flip phones will make a comeback, too.
Photography by Tamara Warren / The Verge