Comparing America’s mainstream wagons, take 2
There’s nothing worse than plans that have gone belly up, but there we were, pulled over in the middle of rural Wyoming, with a ruptured intercooler and a gaping hole where the passenger-side headlight once was on our 2018 Buick Regal TourX, courtesy of a deer.
What we’d planned to do was compare the new Regal wagon with America’s other mainstream wagons, the 2018 Subaru Outback 3.6Rand 2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, on one of the roads that helped turn the United States into the economic and cultural powerhouse we all know and love, the California Trail. Instead we had to scramble to make it all the way back to home base in Los Angeles, California, 1,100 miles (1,770 km) away. You can read all about the journey in the “Wagon Train” story HERE, but now that we’re back in the Golden State and with a fresh Regal TourX sitting in the Motor Trend Garage, it’s time to salvage our original plan and determine which mainstream wagon is best.
Station wagons have come a long way since their mid-20th century heyday. Back then, wagons were just longer sedans, no more, no less. These days, whether we like it or not, most wagons justify their place in the U.S. by having all-wheel drive and riding higher than their sedan counterparts, blurring the line between car and crossover.
This is especially apparent when looking at the Subaru Outback. The best-selling wagon in the U.S. by a large margin, the Outback takes the body of the Legacy sedan (and global wagon) up a level with increased ground clearance—8.7 inches, to be exact—and fits it with outdoorsy body cladding and plastic skid-plates. Power typically comes courtesy of a 2.5-liter flat-four with 175 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, but our Outback is equipped with a 3.6-liter flat-six making 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. It sends power to all four wheels via a CVT. Our Outback 3.6R Touring is a top-of-the-line model, including everything from amenities like heated leather seats and Apple CarPlay compatibility to safety features such as Subaru’s EyeSight driver-assist technology (which features adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, among other things) standard for a grand total of $39,605 USD.
Buick’s and Volkswagen’s wagon transformations both take a page from the successful Outback but are slightly less extreme than the Subaru. Volkswagen starts off with the Golf Sportwagen it already sells here in the States, adds all-wheel drive and some body cladding, and fits the wagon with big 18-inch wheels and a minor suspension lift to give the Golf Alltrack 6.9 inches of ground clearance, up 1.4 inches compared to the Golf Sportwagen. Power comes courtesy of a 1.8-liter turbo-four that produces 170 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque, which is sent to the road via a six-speed twin-clutch automatic. VW takes another page out of the Subaru playbook when it comes to pricing; our top-trim Golf Alltrack SEL doesn’t get any options because its $36,510 USD sticker includes every feature VW can possible squeeze into a Golf, like its suite of driver-assist technologies, heated seats, a panoramic sunroof, and more.
The newcomer of our trio is the Buick Regal TourX, and not just because this is our second one in as many weeks. The 2018 Regal TourX is Buick’s first wagon since the cult-classic Roadmaster went out of production in 1996. Designed, engineered, and built by former GM subsidiary Opel in Germany, the Regal TourX serves as a bridge of sorts between high-riding American-style wagons and sporty European-style “estates.” Based on the Opel Insignia Tourer, the Regal TourX gets (you guessed it) body cladding, a minor suspension increase (giving it 5.7 inches of sunshine under the car), and standard all-wheel drive. The only available powertrain is a 2.0-liter turbo-four that makes 250 hp and 295 lb-ft mated to an eight-speed auto. Unlike the other two wagons, our top-level Regal TourX Essence doesn’t come standard with all the bells and whistles the other two get. The upside is that its $35,995 USD start price is lower than the others and includes niceties such as Apple CarPlay, heated seats, and a heated steering wheel. The downside is you’ve got to shell out more cash to get a car comparably equipped to the Subaru and VW; our totaled Regal TourX was fully loaded with driver-assist systems and a premium audio system, and it stickered for $41,550 USD. Our replacement car, which lacked the panoramic moonroof and driver-assist systems of the first Buick, stickers for $39,760 USD.
Although all three manufacturers take a similar approach to executing their wagons, they all drive differently. With its high-riding suspension and commanding driving position, the Subaru feels the most like a crossover. Thanks to its test-best ground clearance and impressive all-wheel-drive system, the Outback oozes capability. It’ll happily claw its way through high snowbanks that’ll leave the other two wagons waiting for a snowplow. On dry pavement, this capability translates into an exceptionally smooth and forgiving ride, though you pay for it through corners, as the Outback has more body roll than the other two. Associate online editor Michael Cantu found the Subaru “confidence-inspiring” through corners, though steering is a bit vaguer compared to the sportier Buick and Volkswagen.
Subaru’s powertrain is pretty nice, too. The flat-six provides a sense of comfortable capability as it smoothly delivers its power. It never feels out of breath or particularly challenged even while passing on the highway when riding four-up with luggage and passing slower traffic on the highway. The Outback’s CVT is solid, too. “This CVT continues to be one of the best on the market,” associate editor Scott Evans said, though he noted there’s still room for improvement. “After every stop, there’s a jerk when you step on the gas.” Cantu noticed the same thing. “Initial throttle tip in is way too aggressive,” which more often than not results in your passengers’ heads being snapped back into the headrests if you’re not careful.
In our instrumented testing, the Outback performs respectably. It accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, and it’ll run through the quarter mile in 15.2 seconds at 95.9 mph (154.3 km/h). Braking and handling performance were both at the bottom of our group; the Subaru needed 125 feet to come to a standstill in our 60–0-mph braking test and lapped the figure eight in 27.4 seconds at 0.63 g average. The EPA rates the Outback at 20/27/22 mpg (11.8/8.7/10.7 L/100km) city/highway/combined, and we were able to verify those fuel economy results in our Real MPG testing, where we saw 19.6/27.9/22.6 Real MPG (12/8.4/10.4 L/100km).
The Outback seems biased for comfort, and the Golf Alltrack initially seems geared toward sportiness. Around town, its little 1.8-liter engine feels peppy off the line and makes boost quickly, but it runs out of steam as it approaches highway speeds. Its six-speed twin-clutch DSG gearbox doesn’t help things much, either. Its slight jerkiness at low speeds can be forgiven as a fair trade-off for the lightning-quick shifts DSGs provide, but its insistence on being in its top gear as much as possible and reluctance to downshift suck a lot of fun out of the car.
That’s unfortunately not the VW’s only flaw. Its ride is, putting it nicely, awful for a family car. The big wheel and tire pack that gives the Golf Alltrack its increased ground clearance versus the regular Golf Sportwagen also ruins the ride. “Unacceptable chattering on rough pavement,” Detroit editor Alisa Priddle said. Added Evans: “You don’t just feel every bump and crack in the pavement. You at times feel the very grain of the asphalt itself.” The rough ride would be acceptable on a Golf R but not so much on versatile do-it-all wagon. At least the VW handles well; its overly stiff ride pays dividends in corners where it helps the Alltrack corner like a slightly longer, heavier Golf GTI.
At the test track the Golf Alltrack is unsurprisingly the pokiest of our trio, accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and taking 15.5 seconds to speed through the quarter mile at 87.8 mph (141.3 km/h). Things look sunnier for the VW in braking and cornering tests. It posts a test-best 60–0 performance of 117 feet, and it laps the figure eight in 27.0 seconds at 0.64 g average. The EPA’s fuel economy figures appear to be on the mark, too. Rated at 22/30/25 mpg (10.7/7.8/9.4 L/100km) by the feds, we saw 21.3/31.4/24.9 Real MPG (11/7.5/9.4 L/100km) with our test gear hooked up.
The Buick Regal TourX artfully splits the difference between the German and Japanese wagon. Its 2.0-liter engine and eight-speed auto combination is a good one; the turbocharged four-cylinder is gutsy and powerful while still managing to be smooth and quiet. The Regal’s transmission doesn’t make any pretense of being sporty, but it shifts smartly and isn’t afraid to kick down a gear or two if need be. “Even at high speeds, the engine never felt taxed, and the eight-speed was smooth with no hunting,” Priddle said.
The Regal TourX rides and handles well, too. The American wagon’s suspension is soft and compliant like the Subaru’s but without the Outback’s body roll through corners. Steering is nice, too—light yet responsive.
At the test track the Buick leads our group in just about all of our instrumented tests. The Regal TourX hits 60 mph from a standstill in 6.3 seconds and blows through the quarter mile in 14.7 seconds at 94.7 mph (152.4 km/h). Its 60–0 result of 118 feet is just a foot longer than the Volkswagen, but the Regal makes things up on the figure eight with a test-best lap of 26.2 seconds at 0.69 g average. The Regal’s EPA rating of 21/29/24 mpg (11.2/8.1/9.8 L/100km) is impressive, too, considering the numbers it put down at the track, but it might be a touch optimistic; in our testing we achieved 18.2/32.3/22.6 Real MPG (12.9/7.3/10.4 L/100km).
How a wagon drives is only half of the equation—in this segment, how well these vehicles move both people and cargo is equally important.
The smallest of the trio is obviously the Golf Alltrack, but it’s actually much roomier than you’d think. VW, which has been among the best at making a small exterior feel roomy, continues that tradition with the Golf Alltrack. Thanks to its big greenhouse and panoramic roof providing an open-air feel, the VW’s cabin is an inviting place. The seats, wrapped in attractive tan leatherette, are, as Cantu put it, “great-looking and comfortable,” and they do much to make the cabin feel more expensive than it actually is.
The VW’s CarPlay-friendly infotainment system is pretty nice, too. “VW’s done a fine job with this new infotainment system,” Evans said. “It’s clear and easy to read, though there’s a definite learning curve. This Fender audio system is also noteworthy for its clarity and sound quality.”
In back, accommodations are understandably a bit tight. The seats themselves are comfortable, but taller passengers will find their legs and knees digging into the front seat backs. Trunk space is generous, at least. Although the Golf’s cargo cover is maddeningly complex, its cargo area is only slightly smaller than the Buick’s with the second row in place.
If you want space, the Subaru Outback is king. The Regal TourX beats it slightly in front and rear headroom and cargo volume with the second row folded flat, but otherwise the Outback offers up damn near limo levels of room to its occupants front and back. Priddle reported that between the three, her 6-foot-5 husband deemed the Outback his favorite. The Subaru also boasts the most cargo capacity with the rear seats in place, though the Buick edges it out with the seats folded flat. Our loaded Outback’s cabin is nicely appointed, too. “It’s my favorite of the three, with white contrast-stitched brown leather covering the seats and door panels, reclining and heated rear seats, and the largest driver display,” Cantu said.
Despite being the new kid on the block, the Buick Regal TourX was less of a home run than we’d expect. On the space and comfort front, it excels. The TourX’s front and rear seats are more comfortable to most body types than the Subaru’s, with nearly as much space. Adults will have no issue in the roomy back seat, and all will find plenty of room for luggage and the like in the massive cargo hold.
Where the Regal TourX lacks is in its interior design and materials. If the Buick’s sheetmetal is the Stanley Cup of wagon design, the cabin is a Michael Scott Dundie. The understated interior design could work if backed up by nicer materials and a splash of color, but instead it’s just a sea of three different shades of black plastic, broken up by a thin strip of chrome and the infotainment screen. At least that infotainment system is a good one, with good graphics and a snappy, intuitive interface.
After spending the better part of a month driving the Regal TourX, Outback, and Golf Alltrack across the Midwest and then California, ranking them was a bit harder than expected, as each had its share of pros and cons.
We all liked the Golf Alltrack’s design both in and out, and we enjoyed its sporty handling, but it was seriously held back by a lack of power and poor ride quality. The VW is a compelling little car—it’s good enough to overcome one major flaw but not multiple, which relegates it to third place.
It was a photo finish for first place, but in the end the Subaru Outback just lost out, settling for second. If you need your wagon to do it all, the Outback is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, but the compromises needed to help it do it all make it less enjoyable to drive on the road.
That leaves the Buick Regal TourX earning the gold medal. It’s close, but the Regal provides most of the capability of the Outback, in a more attractive and more efficient package, and it’s nicer to drive. One unlucky deer might have derailed our initial plans, but I think it’s safe to say that if we had to retrace the California Trail again, we’d be doing it in a Buick Regal TourX.
|2018 Buick Regal TourX||2018 Subaru Outback 3.6R AWD||2018 Volkswagen Golf Alltrack TSI 4Motion (SEL)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, alum block/head||Flat-6 alum block/heads||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1,998 cc||221.5 cu in/3,630 cc||109.7 cu in/1,798 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||250 hp @ 5,500 rpm*||256 hp @ 6,000 rpm||170 hp @ 4,500 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm*||247 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm||199 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,500 rpm||6,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.9 lb/hp||15.1 lb/hp||20.6 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||Cont variable auto||6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||3.08:1/2.07:1||4.11:1/2.23:1||4.38:1 (1-4) 3.33:1 (5,6,R)/2.53:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS||12.4-in vented disc; 11.8-in vented disc, ABS||11.3-in vented disc; 10.7-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.0 x 18-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/50R18 97V (M+S) Continental ProContact TX||225/60R18 100H (M+S) Bridgestone Dueler H/P Sport AS||225/45R18 92Y Pirelli Cinturato P7 (runflat)|
|WHEELBASE||111.4 in||108.9 in||103.5 in|
|TRACK, F/R||62.8/63.0 in||61.8/62.2 in||60.9/59.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.3 x 73.3 x 58.4 in||198.6 x 72.4 x 66.1 in||180.2 x 70.8 x 59.6 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||5.7 in||8.7 in||6.9 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||40.0 ft||36.1 ft||35.8 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,726 lb||3,869 lb||3,510 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||58/42%||57/43%||56/44%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.8/39.6 in||38.3/38.9 in||38.6/38.6 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.1/36.9 in||42.9/38.1 in||41.2/35.6 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.9/55.4 in||58.1/57.3 in||55.9/53.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH 1ST/2ND ROW||73.5/32.7 cu ft||73.3/35.5 cu ft||66.5/30.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.1 sec||2.9 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.4||3.1||4.0|
|QUARTER MILE||14.7 sec @ 94.7 mph||15.2 sec @ 95.9 mph||15.5 sec @ 87.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||125 ft||117 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.88 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.2 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)||27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||27.0 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,600 rpm||1,450 rpm||2,100 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$41,600||$39,605||$36,510|
|AIRBAGS||10: Dual front, f/r side, f/r head, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver seat pan||6: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||6 yrs/70,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||6 yrs/72,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||6 yrs/70,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||16.4 gal||18.5 gal||14.5 gal|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||18.2/32.3/22.6 mpg||19.6/27.9/22.6 mpg||21.3/31.4/24.9 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||21/29/24 mpg||20/27/22 mpg||22/30/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||160/116 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.81 lb/mile||0.86 lb/mile||0.78 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|