SUV or station wagon – which is best?

Moving Well | Report: Tim Nicholson | Posted on 27 October 2020

SUVs have eclipsed station wagons as the go-to family car, but are they a better option?

The SUV revolution has well and truly hit its peak in Australia. So far this year almost half of all vehicles sold were SUVs, while passenger cars such as hatchbacks, sedans and wagons have accounted for just 25 per cent. That’s a big turnaround from 10 years ago when SUVs made up just 23 per cent of sales.

These days few buyers consider a station wagon when buying a new car, despite their long history in Australia as the family hauler of choice. Many of us have fond memories of family holidays driving to the beach in the vinyl-covered back seat of a Ford Falcon or Holden Kingswood.

But might it be worth considering a station wagon in 2020? Are SUVs necessarily the better choice? We’ve looked into the pros and cons of each style and busted a few long-standing myths.

Blue VW Golf

Wagons tend to be more fuel-efficient than their SUV counterparts. The Volkswagen Golf wagon uses less fuel compared with the equivalent Volkswagen Tiguan SUV.


SUV or station wagon: a comparison


Ride height 

Part of the appeal of an SUV has always been that they allow the driver to sit higher up in traffic, thus allowing better visibility of the road ahead, particularly in bigger SUVs. However, the proliferation of SUVs and dwindling number of passenger cars means you’re usually sitting behind other SUVs on the road, which counters any height advantage.

Parents agree that fitting a child car seat, and lifting a child into and out of the seat, is easier in an SUV thanks to the higher hip height. That’s also why SUVs can be a better option for older folk, or people with back injuries or mobility issues. The hip height means you can slide into the driver’s seat rather than bending down to get in. It also makes it easier to load objects into the boot.

Fuel economy 

Generally, wagons are more fuel-efficient than their SUV counterparts because they are more aerodynamic than higher-riding SUVs, and they weigh less. For example, a Mercedes-Benz C43 4Matic wagon uses 9.6L/100km, according to official consumption figures, whereas the Mercedes-Benz GLC43 4Matic SUV, which shares the same engine and basic underpinnings as the wagon, uses 10.4L/100km.

Similarly the Volkswagen Golf 110TSI wagon uses 5.6L/100km compared with 7.1L/100km for the equivalent Volkswagen Tiguan 110TSI SUV, while the Mazda6 2.5 Sport wagon uses 7.0L/100km compared with 8.1L/100km in the Mazda CX-8 2.5 Sport SUV. 

Boot and interior space

Looking at the models available as a wagon and related SUV, the wagons have the edge – just. A few SUVs have slightly more cargo space than their wagon counterparts – BMW X3, Audi Q5, and Mercedes-Benz GLC. But the Peugeot 308, Skoda Octavia, Volvo V60 and Jaguar XF Sportbrake all have more cargo space than their SUV siblings.

In terms of interior occupant space, the differences are negligible. SUVs might have more head room, but some wagons have more leg room. 

BMW X3

The BMW X3 has slightly more cargo space than other wagon counterparts.


Mercedes Benz GLC 300

The Benz wagon has a 0.1 second advantage over the GLC.


Safety

Very little separates the two body styles when it comes to safety. SUV and wagon models based on the same vehicle architecture usually have the same, or similar, safety equipment. A quick glance at the ANCAP website suggests the crash safety ratings don’t differ greatly either.

Performance 

Aerodynamics and weight differences give wagons the edge for the 0-to-100kmh dash. The Golf wagon is 0.6 seconds faster to 100kmh than the Tiguan, and the Benz wagon has a 0.1 second advantage over the GLC. The laws of physics mean SUVs aren’t as dynamically capable as wagons. A taller vehicle generally has more body roll when cornering as the weight shifts to the outside corner when the vehicle starts to turn. Because wagons are lower to the ground, they dodge these top-heavy issues. 

Off-road ability

Many SUVs are designed to go off road so they clearly win this category. However it’s worth keeping in mind that many models are in fact two-wheel drive and are not suitable for all-terrain driving, even if their styling gives the impression of off-road capability. These are often referred to as soft roaders. For example, a Toyota LandCruiser is a true off-roader, while the similarly sized Toyota Kluger is a soft-roader. 

The verdict

While wagons are just as spacious and practical as SUVs, and superior when it comes to fuel economy and performance, many people will still favour SUVs. It’s always going to come down to personal preference. In fact some people may prefer a wagon these days just because they’re less ubiquitous. But if a wagon appeals you might want to get in quick because they could be a dying breed – just 17 wagon models are available in Australia in 2020 compared with more than 120 SUV models.