Where Have All the Station Wagons Gone?

by Emily Guy Birken · 29 comments

Have you ever wondered what happened to the station wagon and the light-duty pickup truck?

Not very long ago, these two types of vehicles were beloved haulers for families, and the ride of choice for the workingman on a budget. But these days, the only station wagons and compact pickup trucks you see tend to be lovingly preserved antiques belonging to enthusiasts.

What happened?

While there are several factors that have brought about the death of these useful vehicles, for the most part, they’ve been the casualties of CAFE fuel efficiency standards. CAFE, which stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy, is a government mandate for fuel economy targets for automobiles and trucks.

The intention behind the CAFE standards is an excellent one: the government is trying to partner with the automobile industry to improve fuel economy, which is better for the environment, consumers’ wallets, and lessening our dependence on foreign oil.

However, the way the standards are currently written, this noble intention is backfiring — with the most obvious evidence the fact that station wagons and light pickups are going the way of the dodo.

Why? And how will it affect you?

Understanding Current CAFE Standards

Back in 2006, CAFE adopted a new formula for determining fuel economy targets. This formula is based upon the “footprint” of a vehicle, which is calculated by multiplying the vehicle’s wheelbase by its wheel track, and is expressed in square feet. Basically, the smaller a car is, the more stringent its fuel economy standards will be.

For instance, according to Derek Kreindler of The Truth About Cars, “A car such as the Honda Fit, with its footprint of 40 square feet, has to achieve 61 mpg CAFE, or 43 mpg IRL [In Real Life] by 2025 to comply with regulations.”

Vehicles with larger footprints — such as heavy-duty pickup trucks and SUVs — are held to a lower standard. This makes logical sense on the surface. A small compact car is already in a good position to meet difficult fuel economy targets. After all, the major selling feature of a compact sedan is its efficiency and small size. A large truck, on the other hand, needs to offer power, size, and durability, which are much more difficult to make in a fuel-efficient package.

Unfortunately, these standards have had the opposite effect of what was intended. CAFE has given auto manufacturers the incentive to make larger vehicles, since those vehicles don’t have to meet such difficult fuel economy targets. The middle-of-the-road vehicles, like wagons and compact pickups, are in a footprint zone that makes it very difficult for manufacturers to comply with standards while also making a good profit.

How CAFE Is Affecting Consumers

The biggest problem with the loss of these vehicles is what it will mean for consumers. Instead of having the option of purchasing a mid-price, mid-size wagon or truck that will get decent (but not excellent) gas mileage, drivers will have to purchase something larger than what they need, and live with only mediocre fuel economy, at best.

That means they’ll be spending more on the initial purchase, and more at the gas pump — which is exactly the opposite of what CAFE was intended to do.

And no one, except for the auto manufacturers, seems to come out ahead.

Do you think CAFE has affected you at all?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Spike says:

    A lot of really good points being made in this discussion. I would add, that in the early 80’s we had a company that converted full size vans for passenger use. ( a number of such companies existed ) We sold these conversion vans to new car dealers for them to resell. We were purchasing quite a large number of chassis from the big three auto mfg.’s and they suddenly were asking us a lot of questions re: market demographics etc. This was about 1980 and we thought Oh, Oh it’s not good that we are on their radar, so to speak. Of course it wasn’t long before we saw the minivan and we knew the end was near.

  • RAY MARTIN says:

    All this talk about lightness, I don’t think many people realize that most of the cars in the last few years have not the under costing that we had as I grew up… And the vehicles on the highway are noisy as hell from road noise…I have tried to get an undercoating in the area and would you believe it, nobody does it. They tell me that it makes the car heavier… Unbelievable…

  • Meghan says:

    Do we really have to bring our political opinions in to every discussion?

  • fredjohnson says:

    You can still buy light duty pickups. Toyota sells one of the best ones around. Wagons? SUV’s and vans replaced station wagons. I’d much rather have the SUV–I want AWD in the winter here in mn.

    • Leo says:

      Toyota still selling the T-100? That is a good little truck!

      • Dean says:

        The new Chevy Colorado is an excellent small pickup truck…won truck of the year in 2015. The Toyota is dated now.

        • Chuck says:

          The new Colorado may be smaller to some, but it is a monster next to my ’05’ Me and a friend compared his new one to mine and it is substantially bigger ! Everything is growing

  • Bonnie says:

    This is interesting info, but I personally think the reason the station wagon & light duty pickup have gone out of style has to do w/ car seat & seat belt laws. When kids need boosters to age 9 with a strong recommendation to install in the back seat, a 2-seater pickup isn’t going to cut it. And as car seats have gotten safer & bigger, families have turned to SUVs & minivans to fit those huge safety items. Gone are the days of kids laying in the back of the station wagon on the way home from grandma’s like when we were kids.

    • Leo says:

      Nonsense! When we were kids, there was no mandate for seatbelts, in fact, installing them was a good side business for dealerships and repair shops.
      We had a ’59 Ford, and a ’66 Plymouth, and a ’69 Dodge Monaco(learned to drive in that one!), all had 3rd bench, facing backward!

  • Paul says:

    Government’s one-size-fits-all solutions such as the CAFE standards will always have unforeseen consequences. I also dislike the assumption that without government, manufacturers will not make the fuel efficient automobiles that consumers want.
    For our situation, we have one fuel efficient car, and one large SUV that isn’t so efficient. But we only use that large SUV for hauling cargo and taking large groups of people. On a per pound or per person basis the large SUV is actually fuel efficient. But according to the government, I’m being wasteful.

  • Nina says:

    Definitely a flawed argument. The mini-van became the new station wagon. My parents always had wagons. Kids piled into the cargo area in the back – no seats let alone seatbelts. The mini-van replaced that dangerous situation with belted seating for 7.

  • The development, crash-worthiness and fuel-efficient cars has made the station wagon disappear. It is easier to park with the modern small cars than the previous long family cars too.

  • Debt Blag says:

    Is this right? I thought CAFE standards dealt with averages across a manufacturer’s entire fleet, so that every vehicle that’s above the federally designated harmonic mean is balanced out by a vehicle below it You mention a weight exemption, but last I checked, that was for vehicles over 8,5000 pounds. Not even the biggest Hummer H1s or Ford F450 trucks top that…

    But yes, station wagons just became “crossover vehicles.” These days, they’re butched up to look like capable SUVs but for practical purposes, they’re really just tall cars with the unibody construction and fuel efficiency.

  • Phil says:

    Maggie,

    That is awesome. Might have to look into that. Noisy?

  • We think we’ve found the perfect solution. We bought a slightly used Sprinter van made by Mercedes, but sold by Dodge in the US. It seats 10 people and gets 25 mpg, diesel. This is the same van you see used as ambulances and delivery trucks. It’s typically lasts at least 300,000 miles and some make it to 500,000. We are not bothered that it looks something like a delivery truck. Ours has windows on the sides and back while delivery vans don’t.

    We can remove all the seats except the front seats if we want cargo room. We’ve moved our grown kids’ things across country in it. We put in a raised platform with a futon on it for camping. Lots of room below it for just about anything.

    It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we love it!

  • Phil says:

    I remember living in the Seattle area and there were a lot of people (liberals?) upset because Subaru station wagons (Forester, Outback) started classifying itself as trucks. That’s right…as trucks! By doing this, they could remain more competitive regardless of whatever gov’t regulation was being thrown at them. The liberal crowd, if I remember correctly, was upset that the new fuel standards would no longer apply to them. Crazy world.

  • Greg says:

    Phil makes a great point about the free market in trucks, it doesn’t exist, the car companies do not produce vehicles that the public wants, only ones that the companies would like to sell you. Big example is PU truck weight, they have gotten heavier (it’s called “upsell” in car marketing world) but with no increase in cargo capacity. Also 4wd has been way over sold, nobody uses it more than once or twice a year except in maybe a few parts of the country, often it is frozen from not being engaged enough. I have never in 45 years of driving in New England needed it, always had a 2wd PU, just put a couple of bags of sand in the back on a snowy day. I can’t wait for the new CAFE 40mpg trucks come out, it’s way over due.

    • Leo says:

      You’re wrong Greg, auto manufacturers design and sell vehicles the gov’t allows them to. that is what CAFE is all about, and that’s why it should not be considered a good thing. THAT was Phils’ “great point” as you put it.

  • Meghan says:

    Crossover SUVs are the station wagon of today. They went out of style, in favor of the minivan, far before these standards were rolled out. This is a flawed argument.

    However, when you talk about trucks getting larger for the same model, I agree. Perhaps this explains why the Toyota 4Runner is now a beast.

    • MoneyNing says:

      Models getting larger and larger is a phenomenon across all models, and all brands. After all, the new model being roomier is an easy selling point!

    • Marcia says:

      But why a crossover SUV? I mean the gas mileage just isn’t that great and you cannot carry as many people as a minivan.

      Matrix vs. RAV4 – same # of people, better gas mileage.
      Sienna vs. RAV4 – can carry more people.

      I don’t understand the crossover.

      • fredjohnson says:

        Well, for one thing the Rav4 is AWD. The awd version of the matrix doesn’t have any better mileage and it’s a smaller car.

    • Leo says:

      Station wagons went out in the mid-80’s as a result of that round of CAFE standards.They were replaced by the mini-van because the mini-van was built on a small truck frame and trucks were exempt from that round of CAFE standards. The SUV came for the same reason.

  • Phil says:

    Are you trying to tell me that government regulations, rather than free-market principles, are not working? I don’t believe you!

    Seriously though, I would say it has affected me. I look at the older Tundra double cab (’04-’06), which is technically 7/8 a full-size truck, and the newer tundra, which is an absolute monster. I want the smaller truck, but I want the newer, bigger engine but not in a monster truck. I will also say this…the older Tundra is not coming down much in price despite the newer truck being on the market. I think people just don’t want to go that big. I have seen situations where the older model is selling for more than the newer style.

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