Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Way Back

Last week a younger colleague and I were traveling to a conference together in her well equipped and relatively comfortable Toyota mini-van. The van has seating for 7 with a full sized row of seats behind the second row of seats but in front of the tailgate. In discussing her van's utility she referred to this row of seats as the "way back" and I had to stop her mid sentence. "Sorry" I said "that's my generation's term, and I forbid you from ever uttering it again... unless you do so in deference to those who actually experienced a true 'way back'." I'll accept mini-van owners saying "seating for seven" or "third row seating" but "way back" is sacred ground.

No way back ever had seats. In my estimation time has cheapened the significance of the term "the way back." There once was a time when the way back was a frontier, a vast wilderness of molded plastic, carpet and safety glass. There was no direct access, you clamored over the bench seat or crawled in through the tailgate to get there. There were no seat belts or air bags, curtain or otherwise. Your protection was limited to the very low probability that you'd actually get in an accident. Entertainment was spit balls and pretend space travel, not tiny TVs hanging from the ceiling.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, loves station wagons. We love them for their sentimentality as much as their practicality. It's funny to see how car manufacturers are now trying to come up with vehicles that drive like a sedan but with the carrying capacity of an SUV. They make crossovers or CUVs... when all we really need are station wagons. They'll come up with an entirely new vehicle, when they only really needed to blow up the trunk of the better sedans on the market.

My family's first wagon was a Pinto with fake wood panels that looked just like this except it was green where this one is white. These weren't prone to explosion as far as I recall... at least ours never blew up.

We moved on to a pair of Chevy Malibu wagons, like the one below but in blue and red and without the jacked up wheels. My strongest memory of that car was slamming our dog's tail in the rear window which opened separately from the tailgate.

Take a moment and appreciate the enormity of that rear storage area. Such a beautiful thing.

Today I drove neutral support today for the Quabbin Road Race in our current wagon, a 1995 Corolla Wagon (seen below). Once again the wagon proved to be an perfectly suited tool for the job. This car is going on 1/4 of a million miles, and I'd replace it if there was something as good as it on the road.

There isn't.

But the reality is the the corolla does have 225,000 miles on it, and we've been looking. Here's what we found so far.

The first generation Matrix (below) was looking pretty good, but there was a corolla redesign coming and we were hoping for a proper wagon to replace the stubby rear end of the 2008 version.

The new Matrix was a disappointment. Check it out here. The tiny third window standing watch over the cargo area was eliminated. What the hell is that? Doesn't this create a huge blind spot? Are we as car buying consumers that afraid of station wagons that we can't handle the third window?

Apparently so... check out the Venza. A wagon by any other estimation, but again they've jumped through hoops to avoid a sizable window over the cargo area, and have created another monster blind sot in the process.

Here's the 2002 Protege 5, another good looking car. This is a respectable small wagon.

The Mazda3 replaced it, and again the third window has been hacked down to near non-existence.

Hyundai's new Elantra wagon sedan seems to be afraid of that rear window too, but perhaps the name "Touring Sedan" will help it overcome the station wagon stigma.

Hopefully some of the euro "touring sedans" make their way stateside, like this straight sexy accord wagon.

That is a way back I can relate to.


Colin R said...

My Fit has the third window, and I gotta say, it does kinda give me a soccer-mom complex.

rosey said...

my parents had a proper "wally wagon" when i was growing up. they sold it/gave it to our neighbors with older kids who all learned to drive in that boat. i think it had over 300,000 miles before it died.

i guess american car companies realized that longevity meant they couldn't sell as many cars so now they make hunks of shit (called SUV's) that last 6-7 years or 100,000 miles.

i guess that's why i've always been drawn to the non-american cars. they last and they're generally more practical

Ron Steers said...

Wow, this post brought back some good memories. I remember my parents caprice classic wagon that had a way back. I could sit in the way back seat that was hidden under the plastic panels or I could keep the plastic panels flat and slide around in the back whenever my parents took a corner too fast. Man, that was a great car.
I also agree that toyota is missing the point with their new wagons. We are a toyota family (due to the fact that my father worked for toyota) and I think they need to bring back the corolla wagon like yours.

matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gewilli said...

we actually had seat belts in the back of our pinto wagon. No actual seats just some extra lap belts in the back - i think it was brown with wood paneling and it got traded in for a 78? VW Bus, cream on top yellow bottom.

Bobby said...

Great Post. We were a two wagon family for a while growing up. First one was a 1979 Lime Green Ford LTD Wagon nicknamed the Green Bomber. I learn to drive on it and drove it my senior year of high school in '97. I parked in the very back of the parking lot for a reason. It did have a Pioneer radio that made it somewhat less painful. The other wagon was an Early 80's Oldsmobile Wagon. It had a seat in the "way back" that looked out the back window. There used to be a fight over that seat and with four of us it was a fight.

gewilli said...

of course there is always a Passat Wagon out there... or CCC's choice the Allroad pimpstyle wagon...

Anonymous said...

How about a 72 LTD wagon with the 3rd row smell well seats in the rear. They got the name because they did not smell well. That often happens when you drive with kids and they face away from the direction that they are travelling in.
A vile green Dodge Aspen wagon with 4 speed manual tranny was the tops though. It did huge burnouts.

G-ride said...

71 Oldsmobile Vista Cruizer with a V8, tan, wood panelling, the extra little top skylight esque window, that was the bomb.

I love our 2000 Volvo wagon. I paid 9k two years ago, and its AWD. The regular 2WD versions are even less. It big, and even has a flip up third seat facing backwards. Its got the way back only legal.

megA said...

My car in high school--my parent's car that I drove--was a Chevy Malibu Classic station wagon with a V8. I loved that car, its non-existent shocks and ceiling cover that fell down and rested on my head as I drove.

Good memories! Thanks.

DC said...

Thanks Gerry for talking some sense into these people. The Volvo wagon is the best wagon ever made. I prefer the 240. Think about how many of these you see on a daily basis, and then realize that the "newest" one on the road is 16 years old!

solobreak said...

I missed this on the pub date. G-Ride is correct, the only real wagon is a VistaCruiser. Country Squire's were more popular, but they sucked. "Beach wagon" is the popular term for the real old timers.

My 1995 Corolla wagon served me for 225k as well. Although I think Toyota rigs the odometers to read 10% over so that you think you're getting better mileage and longer life than you really are. Seriously. But I neglected it the entire time. It did the Killington Stage Race with four bikes on the roof and four trainers in the back, bumper scraping the ground. After 8 years of zero maintenance I wasn't about to start dumping money into it. Everything was still original except the brakes. Never did struts, clutch, nothing. Exhaust finally went and could not get a sticker so I bought an 08 XBox. Must say it's more comfy, way faster, handles better, and only gets about 10% less gas mileage (with and odo that seems to read correctly). I can't fit anything in it that wouldn't fit in the Corolla though.

Wagon on.