Circle the Wagons: The old family trucksters just ain't what they used to be
You’re looking at this picture and asking yourself what these four vehicles have in common. Okay, here it is: Getting you and your family to Wally World or Wal-Mart even if that means negotiating foul weather, twisty roads, or hundreds of miles of arrow-straight highway. These are the new all-wheel-drive “all ’rounders.”
We’ve come a long way since the Wagon Queen Family Trucksters of our childhood–and with gasoline prices tickling $3 a gallon, 4×4 V-8 sport/utilities now seem about as hip as dial-up modems, cigar bars, and the Macarena. In their place, wagons–that’s right, wagons–have crept back into our peripheral vision and our garages. Cleverly disguised in various shapes and sizes, these new-generation utility/wagons are more space- and fuel-efficient family haulers. Aside from heavy-duty towing and rock crawling, the four examples pictured here accomplish all most SUVs are ever asked to do in this country–and more. So get over your wagon stigma. They’re here. Get used to it.
Some might argue that the Cadillac and Subaru are sport/utilities and the Dodge and Volvo are station wagons. Not so fast. The line that’s separated those camps in the past is getting fuzzier every year. Each of these vehicles is based on a unibody car platform: The Cadillac SRX is derived from the CTS sedan; the Dodge Magnum comes from the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger sedan; the all-new 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca is an expanded version of the Legacy/Outback platform, and the Volvo XC70 is a descendant of S60/S80 sedans. Despite their car origins, these wagons’ maximum interior cargo volumes fall between 69.5 (Cadillac) and 74.4 (Subaru) cubic feet. As a reality check, America’s best-selling sport/utility, the Ford Explorer, has 13.8 cubic feet of cargo volume behind its third row, 44 cubic feet behind the second row, and a maximum of 81.4 cubic feet with everything folded flat.
These wagons employ some type of AWD strategy, but no low-range gearing (see “What’s the diff?”). Six-cylinder engines power three; the Volvo is a turbo five. The base prices start as low as the Dodge Magnum’s $28,725 and go up to the Cadillac SRX’s $39,035–yes, that’s a wide range, but it shows there are at least four ways to construct, equip, price, and market an AWD wagon.
The first thing you’ll notice when getting into the Cadillac SRX, just after soiling your pant leg on the rocker panel, is that its door sills are high and wide. The result of using a CTS’s footwell stamping while increasing the width of the SRX (from the sill out) by about 2.6 inches–it’s something Cadillac is aware of and has promised to address with the 2006 model. For now, you must step up 19 inches and over 10 inches to find the footwell. The Subaru B9 improves upon Cadillac by two inches in each of these dimensions, and the Volvo and Dodge don’t require gymnastics to find the driver’s seat.
The Dodge Magnum’s interior and dash may look substantial, but start tapping on the surfaces, and you’ll discover why this is the lowest-priced vehicle here. Hard, hollow, dark plastic makes the already confining chamber feel even more imposing. You feel like a kid in your dad’s car, peering through the giant steering wheel, over the high beltline, and seeing nothing out the back. The SRX’s dash is an array of angular shapes and textures meant to echo the dramatic rationale of the exterior design theme. The problem is that it somehow manages to be just as drab as the low-buck Dodge Magnum’s while more contrived and less attractive. It’s as if Cadillac is trying too hard here, with unnecessarily complex shapes and a multitude of textures that appear different just to be different. Honorable mention for interior design goes to the newest vehicle here, the Subaru B9. Graceful and modern, the Tribeca easily straddles the line between sci-fi kitsch and cool. It’s as functional as it is appealing, with one quibble: Those nifty temp/fan display LEDs inside the spring-release bezels are hard to read in some lighting situations. The same can be said for the metallic-finish buttons elsewhere.
The best combination of attractive design, use of robust materials, and excellent overall execution (not to mention the most comfortable seats of the group) is in the Volvo XC70. You won’t find a hollow panel, squeaky gap, or hard surface where there ought to be a soft one. The Volvo is the best place to be if you’ve got a 200-mile drive ahead of you. One frustrating lesson was learned while traveling through several zip codes, though: It’s nearly impossible to manually tune a radio station that the audio system finds even slightly out of range. Oh, and don’t try it with the large knob on the right one would expect to use. That one’s for switching between audio sources.
All these wagons are pleasantly quiet while cruising. Often, large open cargo volumes produce annoying thrumming and booming noises. Not so with these four: Each will keep its passengers from cracking a window or cranking the stereo to offset resonances produced by the usually empty cargo bays. Subaru boxer motors and Volvo inline-fives tend to be groaners under full throttle, but weren’t this time around. It’s obvious sound-deadening strategies were used liberally in both. We expected the SRX to outshine the competition in ride isolation and better noise/vibration/harshness characteristics, but while the SRX’s driveline proved a smooth operator, it erupted into a raucous chorus under full throttle. Honda wouldn’t greenlight a six that groans like an overworked power-steering pump: It’s hardly the sort of tone you’d expect from a premium brand with a premium price. The Dodge Magnum’s less-obtrusive V-6 was so responsive it made one staffer say he’d have a hard time recommending the available V-8 over this wagon’s well-matched powertrain.
The biggest surprise came from the vehicle that on paper would appear to be at a disadvantage: the Volvo XC70. Trailing the highest-output engine here by some 47 horsepower (and one cylinder), the turbocharged inline-five in the Volvo stole first place away from the field in acceleration tests. How? With clever gearing and a turbocharger that lights early. Unlike other Volvos with similar engines, this one steps off the line smartly from 2000 rpm (max torque is produced between 1500 and 4500 rpm) all the way up to redline. There’s none of that rubberband power delivery and brown-truck drone we’ve lamented in the past, and this one’s good to tow up to a test-topping 3300 pounds. And, in case you were wondering, it’s around a second quicker to 60 mph and over the quarter mile than a Ford Explorer.
We conducted an unscientific fuel-economy calculation based on the two weeks we drove these wagons. What we learned from combining bumper-to-bumper commuting, track testing, and highway cruising is that we drive differently from the EPA folks. No surprise there. We’d hoped these less-than-eight-cylinder vehicles would perform better than they did. We were especially disappointed that the Cadillac and Subaru underperformed even the claimed city fuel consumption, and the Dodge and Volvo fell between their city and highway figures–which is what normally happens. Our combined averages (and EPA city/highway ratings) were Cadillac at 14 mpg (rated for 16/22 mpg), Subaru at 16 mpg (18/23 estimated), Dodge at 18 mpg (17/24), and Volvo at 21 mpg (18/24). The Ford Explorer bogey mentioned earlier claims to achieve 14/18 mpg in city/highway driving. Our leadfooted results are no doubt worse than what you’d encounter, but they’re telling nonetheless.
As road manners go, all these car-based chassis performed far better than any but the most expensive European sport/activity offerings and far better than any truck-based sport/utility. None feels particularly large or ungainly, with each averaging over 60 mph in our 600-foot-slalom test and orbiting the skidpad at about 0.80 lateral g. All easily dispatched mountain roads and highways. One anomaly occurred on the freeway in the Volvo, however. A particular tire pattern and highway rain-grooves conspired to produce a strange side-to-side head wobble that went away when a different surface was encountered. Forced to choose, a slight advantage goes to the Volvo XC70 for everyday driving, but the Dodge Magnum takes the enthusiast vote, achieving a test-track slalom run in the neighborhood of a Ford Mustang GT’s time.
Finally, we fished a tape measure out of our toolbox and gathered some cargo-bay dimensions. These measurements were taken from the closed rear hatch to the base of the second-row seatback, between the narrowest portions of the rear-wheel housings, and from the floor to the shorter of either the upper edge of the seatback or underside of the sliding cargo cover (the safe load-height limit). Think of this LxWxH tally as the useable dimensions of a cargo bay rather than referring to the mathematical SAE formula the manufacturers supply. Of course, Dodge had better offer a lot of floor space; that Kustom Kar hatch limits cargo bar height. The largest floor and highest seatback was in the Subaru. Second only to the Subaru, the Volvo floor is large and, in fact, wider than it is long. As a bonus, the XC70 happens to offer the best rearview sightlines of the bunch.
Which wagon/utility would serve you best? There was a time when that depended on what you wanted to do with it. But because of an SUV hangover mentality, people want their vehicles to do everything these days. Any of these would surprise most traditional SUV shoppers who want a break on their monthly fuel bills. Each one has AWD capability that surpassed expectations and is certainly more than adequate for the bad-weather driveability/light-towing duties that are the staple diet of most suburban SUVs. Their track performances prove car-based large-capacity wagons can run circles around truck-based SUVs, which means driving something useful doesn’t have to be a penalty. And their cargo-carrying abilities sometimes exceed those of SUVs.
The Cadillac was probably the biggest disappointment of the group. With the highest base and as-tested prices, we looked for things to pick on, but did there have to be so many? It’s not as big inside as the exterior suggests, and that V-6 engine is nowhere near as well mannered as it should be when you stand on the gas. It finishes fourth in this bunch.
The B9 Tribeca–well, somebody’s got to say it–has a face only a mother could love. We understand the importance of standing out from the crowd when introducing the first Subaru of its size and scope, but do you suppose a more attractive design would’ve hurt it? Was the ink BMW used to pen the X5, for example, more expensive? Dynamically, the B9 is, uh, benign. Again, that’s an easy jab, but unlike other Subaru products (with turbochargers!), our socks are still on after driving this one. We’d hoped for rally-inspired talent and hardware. Maybe there’s an STi Tribeca on the way. Until then, third place, despite the sophisticated AWD system.
For style, you gotta love the Man Wagon looks of the Dodge Magnum. It’s the family wagon a guy wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen in, easily the hottest of this foursome here in style-conscious Los Angeles. It wouldn’t be our high-comfort choice for a long haul, but it’d be a smart-looking and smart-money buy for those who relish the attention and wouldn’t mind saving a few bucks doing it. But inside it’s just too cheapskate, even for its price point.
Can the oldest vehicle here really be the one that does it all? The Volvo XC70 has been around, evolving and changing names, since 2001. Volvo wagons, while suburban cliches, are highly regarded for good reason: They do the job they were designed to do better than anything else. The XC70 is efficient, quiet, comfortable–and it has no problem whisking you and your family away from the suburban sprawl, rain, snow, or shine. Johnny-come-lately AWD wagon/utilities may offer a different look and so escape the uncool-1960s stigma; they’re all derivatives of the one that arguably started it all. The Volvo XC70 proves the modern family wagon has come almost full circle.
What’s The Diff?
From a simple all-wheel-drive applique to a complex drivetrain, the four AWD systems here are fundamentally different. The Dodge Magnum utilizes a planetary gear set to apportion the power delivery 38 percent to the front and 62 percent to the rear. This front/rear split never varies and gives the Magnum the feel of a rear-drive car–most of the time. The Magnum SXT AWD can claw its way through understeer (under wide-open throttle) to a quicker average speed through the cones by pulling the nose where the steering wheel is pointed.
The Cadillac SRX AWD uses three “open” differentials (center, front, and rear) to allow the engine’s power to vacillate from the normal 50-percent-front/50-percent-rear operation through gear pressures. The problem with this system is that it’s easy to stymie. If a wheel begins to spin (when unweighted or on a slippery surface), its rotation must be checked by a braking force to stop futile spinning. This traction-control-based system essentially converts the engine’s power to heat in the brakes when it can’t be used to drive a wheel. Thus, the Cadillac can get itself out of slippery situations, but has no way of routing more power to the wheels with the most grip until it loses grip. It’s a purely reactive system at its limit, not proactive. In the case of our slalom test (conducted with all stability systems off), understeer occurred at the limit of the vehicle that the AWD system couldn’t overcome because the front wheels weren’t spinning, but skidding.
What’s The Diff?…cont
The Volvo uses a system that requires the detection of wheelspin before redirecting driving power–with a difference. If the XC70, primarily a front-drive vehicle with 95-percent front-torque bias, detects as little as one-seventh of a front-wheel rotation (relative to the other wheels), it’ll grab the spinning driveshaft with a clutch that in turn provides the rear axle with torque. This Haldex system doesn’t rob the engine of unuseable power and convert it to heat (as in the Cadillac), but sends as much as 95 percent of it to the rear wheels where it can be used.
The Subaru B9 Tribeca features an electronically controlled clutch that acts on a planetary center differential to constantly fluctuate front/rear power distribution. Under normal conditions, the split is 45-percent front/55-percent rear. However, the system is predictive and, using a series of sensors to measure throttle input, steering angle, yaw rate, wheel speeds, and lateral g forces, compares the vehicle’s stability with the driver’s intended direction. When these two don’t match, the first line of defense is to reroute power to a max of 50/50 front rear. If this still doesn’t make the prediction match reality, the stability system begins to apply brakes selectively to keep the vehicle on its intended path.
The Subaru was the only vehicle here in which the stability system remained active when switched off and became the limiting factor in the slalom test. There was also a nanny lurking in the Dodge, but it was calibrated to activate well outside the limits of a skilled driver. The Subaru and Dodge stability systems were active (on or supposedly off) in the skidpad portion of the wet and dry figure-eight tests.
Cornering Performance Wet Vs. Dry
We Compared each vehicle’s dry versus wet performance (via dowsings from a water truck) negotiating a 200-foot diameter corner. For the dry runs, driver Chris Walton switched off electronic performance aids as much as possible, while in the wet, all systems were reactivated. Each bar (below) represents performance in gs regardless of whether they were produced during braking, cornering, or acceleration. Of particular interest is the dip transitioning from braking to cornering; it’s an indicator of stability. All g results shown are for the dry laps; the wet results are depicted as a percentage of them.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/42/2005/08/112_0508-wagon_comparison-chart.jpg" alt="Illustration by Kim Reynolds” class=”wp-image-2092219″ />
|2005 Cadillac SRX V6 AWD||2005 Dodge Magnum SXT AWD||2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca 7-passenger||2005 Volvo XC70 AWD|
|Front engine, AWD||Front engine, AWD||Front engine, AWD||Front engine, AWD|
|V-6, alum block & heads||V-6, alum block & heads||F-6, alum block & heads||Turbocharged I-5, alum block & head|
|Valvetrain||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Displacement||217.5 cu in/3564cc||214.7 cu in/3518cc||183.0 cu in/3000cc||153.8 cu in/2521cc|
|255 hp @ 6500 rpm||250 hp @ 6400 rpm||250 hp @ 6600 rpm||208 hp @ 5000 rpm|
|254 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm||250 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm||219 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm||236 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm|
|17.5 lb/hp||16.8 lb/hp||17.0 lb/hp||18.4 lb/hp|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic||5-speed automatic||5-speed automatic||5-speed automatic|
|3.91:1 / 2.93:1||3.07:1 / 2.55:1||3.58:1 / 3.01:1||2.65:1 / 2.70:1|
|Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, load-leveling shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, 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||12.7-in vented disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS||13.6-in vented disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS||12.3-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS||12.0-in vented disc; 11.4-in disc, ABS|
|Wheels||18 x 8.0, cast aluminum||18 x 7.5 cast aluminum||18 x 8.0 cast aluminum||16 x 7.0 cast aluminum|
|Tires, f;r||235/60R18 102V; 255/55R18 104V M+S Michelin Pilot HX MXM4||225/60R18 99H; 225/60R18 99H M+S Continental 4×4 Contact||255/55R18 104H; 255/55R18 104H M+S Goodyear Eagle LS2||215/65R16 98V; 215/65R16 98V M+S Pirelli Scorpion STR|
|Wheelbase||116.4 in||120.0 in||108.2 in||108.8 in|
|Track, f/r||61.9 / 62.2 in||63.0 / 63.1 in||62.2 / 62.1 in||63.4 / 60.9 in|
x Width x
|194.9 x 72.6 x 67.8 in||197.7 x 74.1 x 58.4 in||189.8 x 73.9 x 66.5 in||186.3 x 73.2 x 61.5 in|
|8.2 in||5.6 in||8.4 in||8.2 in|
|39.7 ft||38.8 ft||37.4 ft||43.3 ft|
|Curb weight||4468 lb||4189 lb||4252 lb||3828 lb|
|51 / 49 %||52 / 48 %||55 / 45 %||54 / 46|
|2000 lb||2000 lb||2000 lb||3300 lb|
|5 passengers||5 passengers||7 passengers||5 passengers|
|40.3 / 38.4 / NA in||38.4 / 38.1 / NA in||38.9 / 38.2 / 36.2 in||39.3 / 39.3 / NA in|
|42.1 / 41.0 / NA in||41.8 / 40.2 / NA in||42.3 / 34.3 / 30.9 in||42.6 / 35.2 / NA in|
|58.7 / 57.6 / NA in||56.2 / 57.6 / NA in||58.1 / 57.5 / 51.3 in||56.2 / 55.9 / NA in|
|69.5 / 32.4 / NA cu ft||71.6 / 27.2 / NA cu ft||74.4 / 37.6 / 8.3 cu ft||71.4 / 37.4 / NA cu ft|
|31.0 x 44.0 x 16.5 in||42.0 x 39.0 x 16.5 in||45.5 x 43.0 x 17.0 in||42.0 x 44.0 x 16.0 in|
|19.0 / 10.0 in||16.0 / 7.0 in||17.0 / 8.0 in||15.5 / 9.0 in|
|Acceleration to mph|
|0-30||2.5 sec||3.2 sec||3.4 sec||2.4sec|
|4.1 sec||4.5 sec||4.5 sec||4.0 sec|
|1/4 mile||15.6 sec @ 89.0 mph||16.4 sec @ 85.9 mph||16.8 sec @ 83.8 mph||15.4 sec @ 90.2|
|125 ft||126 ft||127 ft||133 ft|
|61.8 mph avg||64.5 mph avg||60.6* mph avg||62.8 mph avg|
|0.81 g avg||0.78 g avg*||0.79 g avg*||0.77 g avg|
|28.2 sec @ 0.59 g avg||28.5 sec @ 0.56 g avg*||28.8 sec @ 0.56 g avg*||28.2 sec @ 0.58 g avg|
|29.3 sec @ 0.55 g avg*||29.9 sec @ 0.52 g avg*||30.4 sec @ 0.51 g avg*||29.3 sec @ 0.54 g avg*|
@ 60 mph
|2200 rpm||2000 rpm||2200 rpm||2200 rpm|
|Airbags||Dual front, front side, f/r head curtain||Dual front||Dual front, front side, f/r head curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r head curtain|
|4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|4 yrs/50,000 miles||7 yrs/70,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|20.0 gal||19.0 gal||16.9 gal||18.0 gal|
|16 / 22 mpg||17 / 24 mpg||18 / 23 mpg (est)||18 / 24 mpg|
|14 mpg avg||18 mpg avg||16 mpg avg||21 mpg avg|
|Unleaded regular||Unleaded midgrade||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|† measured with second row up and to seatback top edge
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/42/2005/08/112_0508_road_test_2005_cadillac_srx_v6_vs_2005_dodge_magnum_sxt_vs_2006_subaru_b9_tribeca_vs_2005_volvo_xc70_18l-2005_dodge_magnum_sxt-front_left_side_view.jpg" alt="2nd place: Dodge Magnum SXT
The family-man man’s wagon; stylish, though low-budget on interior materials.” class=”wp-image-2092224″ />
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/42/2005/08/112_0508_road_test_2005_cadillac_srx_v6_vs_2005_dodge_magnum_sxt_vs_2006_subaru_b9_tribeca_vs_2005_volvo_xc70_10l-2006_subaru_b9_tribeca-side_rear_view.jpg" alt="3rd place: Subaru B9 Tribeca
It’s not going to win a beauty contest, but it’s spacious and fuel-efficient.” class=”wp-image-2092225″ />
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/42/2005/08/112_0508_road_test_2005_cadillac_srx_v6_vs_2005_dodge_magnum_sxt_vs_2006_subaru_b9_tribeca_vs_2005_volvo_xc70_06l-2005_cadillac_srx_v6-side_rear_view.jpg" alt="4th place: Cadillac SRX V6
We expected better performance–but it’s noisy under full throttle and the highest priced of the bunch.” class=”wp-image-2092227″ />