What we have here are two endangered species – in the United States, anyway. We are gathered here today to bid a fond farewell to the Station Wagon and the manual transmission – at least as far as their place in the world of conventional automotivedom. Premature, you say? I beg to differ.
I’ve mentioned before on this site my love for station wagons. To me, they represent the best of both worlds – they have the utility of a truck or an SUV, but with the ride and handling of a proper saloon car – sports sedan, even. In fact, in some cases due to weight distribution, suspension tuning, etc., the wagon versions of a certain model range can actually handle better than their sedan brethren. That said, take a look around you: American roads once populated with sports cars, sedans, and station wagons are now overloaded with people movers instead of cars. Minivans and SUVs, many with the profile of a medium-sized billboard, dominate our roads. If you don’t believe me, just try to see around the car in front of you.
Station Wagons have given way due to their “lack” of practicality to gas-guzzling behemoths which incidentally get around Federal fuel economy standards in many cases by being technically classified as trucks – but nobody walks into their spinning class and tells everyone they just bought a new truck. Nope, they lament the virtues of their SUV – or “Sport Utility Vehicle.” “Sport”? Really? I don’t know the name of the big Infiniti SUV, but there decidedly nothing “sporting” about it, I think, however, you can see it with the naked eye from the moon.
Perhaps the term “Sport” in this application is not meant to imply “Sports Car” but rather a sporting, outdoorsy lifestyle. Fail again. While these cars are all designed to take you to the four corners of the Earth in rain, sleet, hail, or snow, test after test demonstrates that only purpose-built off-roaders such as Land Rovers, Mercedes G-classes, and the like can actually handle true off-roading. Try it with your Camry-based Highlander and see for yourself, but don’t blame me when you get stuck on the first obstacle.
I remain, like tens of thousands of Europeans, staunchly committed to my station wagon. It fits the roads I drive and my style of driving. I can carry as much as I need, and as many people as I need thanks to the rear-facing third seat (also an endangered species being available now in only the Mercedes E-Class station wagon, and no longer in the Volvo or Audi). I get car-like gas mileage, although truth be told I’d rather have a diesel wagon – which carmakers have also determined is not appropriate for the US market. Conversely, I could get a performance wagon like the E63, M5, or Dodge Magnum. But wait, those are disappearing as well. We love our wagon, but I fear that when it’s finally time to replace it, there will be no option but to drink the Kool-Aid. Or move to Europe.
Row, Row, Row your Own
Among the station wagons we have had was a 2000 BMW 528iT. One of the key reasons we bought it was that it came with the sport package, premium package, and a 5-speed manual transmission. As an enthusiast, I would have preferred the same spec but in the V8-powered 540 model, but alas, no stick. One of the many reasons I fell for my wife was her mastery of the manual transmission. Sure, I’d used the old “I’ll teach to you drive it” like on a handful of girlfriends, but truth is this gal could already do it – and well. When that car started to go south, we considered our options, but found that there were really no suitable replacements available with the manny tranny, and ended-up going with the Mercedes which at least came with a tiptronic-like semi-manual option. We all know this is no replacement for a good-old stick, but frankly it is just about the only choice out there.
You can still buy a handful of cars with a stick, but strangely the carmakers don’t generally make it available with the big engines or the interesting-spec cars, apart from dedicated sports cars like a Porsche 911 or a Subaru STi. In usable, everyday cars, the manual is generally tied to the low-line 4-banger and for some reason you can’t get the sunroof with it – or some other comparably stupid limitation. Why can’t I have a new E350 with a stick? Heck, I can’t even get it with a shifter – they’ve gone to the lame column-mounted transmission activator (?) and paddles behind the steering wheel. Guess what – I can’t rest my hand on paddles, and the Nav system freaks out every time I rest my hand on the Nav control button located where the shifter should be.
There are other issues, though. Making kids learn to drive on a stick shift forces them to start to understand how a car works and how it puts power to the road. It can help give them perspective on the power at their fingertips, as opposed to cultivating what has become a “point and squirt” mentality among young drivers that can make them very, very dangerous.
Ultimately, all I want is a choice. Once again, in Europe manual transmissions remain the norm, although there is a slow shift (pun intended) to the automatic. Europeans can still buy the vast majority of cars available to them in their choice of transmission. So why can’t we? Easy: the government makes it too expensive for carmakers to rationalize the expense. Foreign cars tested and approved for the US market must be thoroughly tested in every configuration in which they may be sold. That means that if you have an automatic version and a stick version of otherwise identical cars, each must be crash tested and go through rigorous DOT certification and emissions certification to the tune of millions of dollars expense to the manufacturer. Same goes for body configurations (wagon and sedan variants of a model, for example). For a shrinking market made up of Car Geeks like me, I wouldn’t spend the money either if I were in their shoes.
I love America and I love being American, but I am baffled at how we move ever closer to taking choice out of the hands of the consumer through regulation. Give me my stick shift and my station wagon – or both. Throw in a choice of engines, too, while you’re at it. Make mine a diesel, but give me the option for a stinking fast V8. Is that really too much to ask?