The station wagon is at a crossroads. This most practical of cars sells well in Europe, yet the humble wagon has been dealt blows in the US by Volvo and in Australia by Ford. And in the UAE, they are a rare sight in a sea of SUVs, rentals and luxury cars. In the US, Volvo has announced that it will drop the V70 station wagon from its 2011 American lineup in response to poor sales - only 1,800 were sold in 2009.
"Our XC70, XC60 and XC90s [all crossovers or SUVs] account for about 42 per cent of total sales, while V70 is only about two per cent," says Dan Johnston, a spokesman for Volvo North America. "Buyers voted with their pocketbooks and chose an XC over [the] V70 in our market." Lars Knese, regional sales operations manager for Volvo Middle East, says that only the US and Finland suffered slumps in V70 sales, with sales of the wagon "stable or increased in most of our key markets", which includes the UAE.
"Almost 50 per cent of all V70s are sold in Sweden. Sales were stable in Sweden during 2009 and we increased our V70 sales in the UK, which is our second largest market, closely followed by Germany," says Knese. Later this year, Volvo is expected to launch the V60 station wagon, which Knese says "will have a very sporty design and be positioned below the current V70." However, Volvo's relatively strong station wagon presence in the UAE is something of an anomaly, as buyers who want a roomier car tend to take advantage of the Gulf's cheap petrol prices and opt for SUVs instead. Buyers who want a roomier car in places where petrol is more expensive, such as Europe, may favour a station wagon with similar fuel economy to a saloon car over SUVs.
It is fleet buyers that are keeping the wagon market afloat in the UAE. The most obvious station wagons on UAE roads are the dark blue Volvo V70 Emirates Airine has used to transport VIP customers since June 1995. Peter Mellor, sales and marketing manager for Trading Enterprises, the UAE Volvo distributor, says that 17 per cent of Volvo's UAE sales are station wagons and 80 per cent of these are sold to fleet buyers. However, he says it is easy for private customers to buy Volvo wagons. "We carry stock at all times," he says.
Audi also supplies wagons to Emirates - the silver Audi A6 Avant wagons with the red airline logo on the door are used to drive pilots and co-pilots to work. Audi's main station wagon customers are Emirates and Al Ghazal taxis. Karin Haferkorn, pubic relations manager for Audi Middle East, says: "We receive requests from individual customers only very rarely." Nissan doesn't sell any station wagons at all in the UAE. For other badges, the station wagon attracts some corporate buyers but private customers are not as keen.
Private customers can order Volkswagen wagons, but as the UAE distributors do not keep a stock of them, there may be a wait of a few months for delivery. Mercedes-Benz sold "less than 110 station wagons in the past two years in the UAE, mostly E-Class wagons", according to Julian Millward-Hopkins, press manager for Mercedes-Benz Middle East. They were sold mostly to fleet buyers, but Merc wagons are available for private use on request.
Leanne Blanckenberg, corporate communications manager for BMW Group Middle East, reports sluggish UAE sales of station wagons, but in Europe, it is a different story. Its Touring models are proving popular for younger drivers wanting extra room for equipment such as skis and mountain bikes. "We are noticing an ongoing but moderate trend towards the Touring in more active and younger target groups," she says.
The only manufacturer to report "good sales" of station wagons in the UAE is Mazda. R Krishnan, general manager of Galadari Automobiles, Mazda's UAE distributor, says Mazda is the only Japanese brand that supplies station wagons in the UAE and that local police forces and government departments buy them as well as private customers. Meanwhile, in Australia, the Ford Falcon wagon, a favourite in fleets and family driveways since 1960, will go out of production in June for the petrol engine model, and September for the natural gas version, again because of poor sales. Less than 2,500 were sold in 2009, accounting for just eight per cent of total sales for the Falcon, which also includes saloon and performance variants.
"We're very, very comfortable with the decision. It was a great car then, it still is a great car now, but we're now moving forward," says Martin Burela, CEO of Ford Australia CEO. The smaller Mondeo wagon and the popular SUV, the Ford Territory, are the alternatives to the Falcon wagon for the Australian market. Secondhand Falcon station wagons are popular among backpackers travelling around Australia. While there may be no more new models on the market after June, the secondhand Falcon wagon market should remain buoyant for travellers.
But in America there are two cars in the marketplace that may make wagons cool again. For customers with some cash to splash, the limited-edition Superior 54 Sport Wagon, based on the sleek but ultimately ill-fated Chevrolet Nomad concept of the 1950s, is doing the rounds of motor shows in the hope that 25 people will part with US$125,000 (Dh459,125) for a piece of replicated history. At the slightly more affordable end of the spectrum, Cadillac is trying to capitalise on the success of the CTS saloon by releasing the CTS Sport Wagon in the US. It will come in rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive variations and the base price is expected to be around US$33,000 (Dh121,210). But the Sport Wagon "unfortunately" will not be available in the UAE, says Fouad Hamad, media relations manager for GM Middle East. However, the CTS Coupe and CTS-V Coupe will be launched here.
As long as fuel prices stay as low as they are here, it looks like larger SUVs will prove more saleable than the humble station wagon in the UAE for the foreseeable future. firstname.lastname@example.org